Literally and metaphorically, a light went on for me last week. I had the privilege of attending an event hosted by Lighting Science, a company devoted to marshaling light to work with our bodies, not against them. Fred Masik, the company founder, Dr. Michael Bruce, a sleep expert, and Dr. Smith Johnston, a flight surgeon working with NASA, presented on the panel.
The room was packed with investors, scientists, doctors and designers. That in itself was worth noting; these days the “wellness space” is filled with an interesting mix of people from seemingly disparate fields. But no more—now we all work together for a common good, and that is not only heartening on many levels, but it’s an incredible opportunity.
As the conversation rolled on, I was struck by how much genuine science there is to prove the value of sleep, the power of light in our lives and the necessity of doing something about how we live—not in ways extraordinary, but rather, quite ordinary.
I admit that before last week, I flipped on a light switch without giving it much thought. And I turned on the same kind of light whether working at my computer, washing for bed, reading before sleep or cooking in the kitchen. I won’t be doing that anymore.
Light has a tremendous impact on our lives, and, in particular, on our sleep, which we all know now is central to our general wellbeing. Too bright before sleep, and we won’t sleep that well. If you look at computer and smartphone screens before bed, you won’t sleep that well, either. These devices trick our bodies into thinking it’s daytime and that we’re working. It seems a very simple, almost obvious, concept, yet most of us pay no attention. The circadian rhythms of our bodies are central to the understanding of everything from productivity to disease.
For instance—and this fact really got everyone’s attention at the event—people who do “shift work,” like nurses and other healthcare workers, are now at greater risk for certain cancers, in great part because of the interruption in their circadian cycles.
According to the World Health Organization, “There is stronger evidence for shift work involving circadian disruption as a factor for developing breast cancer than for chemicals. Shift work involving disruption of normal sleep routines is currently classified as an ‘IARC 2A’ carcinogen, which means that it is probably carcinogenic to humans.” That was an amazing statistic to learn, and you could hear a collective intake of breath in the room.
I’m grateful I don’t work the night shift, but I’m more cognizant than ever of the power of sleep, the importance of light and the need for global awareness of this important issue. Therein lies the opportunity.