Fluorescent Lights and Nighttime, a Bad Mix?

on Aug 19, 2010

Is fluorescent lighting messing up your sleep cycle? The bright white glow, not unlike daylight may cause our bodies to interpret that night has not fallen. Think about it: for nearly all of human history, access to light at night has been limited. For the most part it’s been moonlight and fire. The former isn’t particularly bright and latter produces a gentle hue of colors (often called a warm color temperature). Both contrast starkly with bright, harsh fluorescent lighting. Even lighting directly prior to fluorescents, including incandescent bulbs, was generally warm in color.

Our evolutionary history clearly suggests that our bodies are adapted to gentle, warm colored light at night. So does exposure to fluorescent lights at night cause our internal clocks to become screwy as our circadian rhythms are unable to tell day and light apart? I’m very inclined to say it does and I received some news recently that further supports this: a friend of mine had informed me that upon running into sleep problems, his sleep doctor suggested that he wear glasses, at nighttime, that filter out blue colors (a.k.a cool color temperature light). Clearly the purpose of this was to keep the body exposed to more natural nighttime lighting.

As the ongoing green trend progresses, people are pretty much forced to switch to fluorescent bulbs. This has me concerned and I’m not the only one. Many people simply don’t like the light “quality” from fluorescent bulbs (it’s quite probable that the unnatural effect plays a role in this). Others are sensitive to the flickering nature of fluorescents. Most people simply don’t know why they don’t like them, they just don’t (I was in this category for a long time). In the U.K., there’s actually a thriving black market for incandescent bulbs since they were banned.

So are we at a total loss? I wouldn’t say so. I’ve noticed that many of the newer fluorescent bulbs are not white in color, but rather have a warmer color temperature. It seems manufacturers are aware that many people prefer warmer tones for home lighting. I’m sure the technology will mature over time as well. Color spectrums will improve. And eventually fluorescents will be phased out by something else. There’s already one candidate: LED lighting. While LEDs are very pricey, the cost will drop as companies invest more in the technology. I’ve already made my own investment by purchasing a powerful LED flashlight with a special coating that gives warm colored light output. Combined with a light diffuser, it makes for a great reading light (on low mode, nonetheless).

But until technology catches up, just be aware of the tradeoffs in switching to fluorescent lights. I’m all for being more environmentally friendly, but damage to sleep cycles can be more costly overall.