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July 23, 2015

High-tech lights can aid patients by mimicking the effects of nature

  • Light therapy has been shown to treat seasonal affective disorder, improve infant health and help Alzheimer’s patients sleep better at night.
    Coffman Engineers


    It is in our nature to heal. As soon as skin is punctured, coagulants and antibodies immediately rush to the scene to stop the bleeding and protect against infection.

    A bone will strive so desperately to rebuild itself after a break that medical intervention is often necessary in order to ensure that it heals correctly. We sleep each night in order to restore our energy and health.

    Nature helps us heal. Evidence has shown that exposure to nature and fresh air helps our bodies to heal and helps our spirits to embrace more positivity.

    We incorporate design elements into buildings where healing must happen in order to trigger that response.

    Interacting with light

    Light is an element of nature that helps our bodies heal, and is an element of design that has thus far been underutilized as a tool to help improve the healing process. That is precisely what light can do — speed up and enhance the healing process.

    A life predominantly lived indoors under the glow of artificial light is a fairly recent phenomenon. Daily life traditionally revolved around the sun. Work and play could only be accomplished when ample light was present, and the darkness of the night meant that the only safe activity available was rest.

    Photo courtesy of Coffman Engineers [enlarge]
    Patients exposed to LEDs that simulate natural light are discharged 30 percent quicker.

    Because of this, our bodies have evolved in such a way that a specific set of neuron cells at the back of the eye are constantly interpreting the information that is present in light. These cells are called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (IPRGs). They live in the very back of the eye by the “rod” and “cone” cells that interpret signals for our visual system.

    IPRGs sense the color composition, intensity and quality of light, but have nothing to do with vision. These cells are connected directly to hypothalamus, a neurological and hormonal command center deep in the center of the brain. From here, countless processes and catalysts are orchestrated. This portion of the brain regulates certain metabolic processes, synthesizes and secretes hormones, controls body temperature, hunger, certain aspects of parenting and attachment behaviors, thirst, fatigue, sleep and circadian rhythms.

    Each morning, as we spin toward the sun, light is presented to us in short wavelengths, which appear to the eye as a white light saturated in blues. In the evening, as we turn away from the sun, the blue is filtered out, and long-wavelength light appears much warmer in color, almost orange.

    The content of wavelengths present in the light around us tells our body what time it is, which then tells our body which processes it should be triggering. The blue light in the morning triggers the brain to stop producing melatonin, the hormone that makes us tire and helps us relax. The orange light in the evening tells our body to start producing melatonin again so we can sleep soon.

    LED technology

    Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) now enable us to create electric lighting systems that mimic the natural shifts in the light that makes its way through our atmosphere from the sun. Because of the way white light is created in each diode, controls can be programmed that will take the light in a given space through the spectrum from blue to orange and can time it to happen at the same time every day.

    We can now specify luminaires that are able to shift from short-wavelength, cool white light in the morning to long-wavelength, warm white light in the evenings. Creating lighting systems in this manner has real impacts on the health and well-being of those who experience it.

    Patients who are allowed to heal in light that mimics nature are discharged 30 percent quicker and ask for 20 percent less pain medications. This type of light treatment is the most effective way to treat seasonal affective disorder.

    Infants who spend time in neonatal intensive care units that incorporate this design gain weight faster, breathe on their own quicker and are discharged sooner than infants who don’t. Alzheimer’s patients have been proven to get better sleep at night, which leads to less nighttime wandering and falls.

    This type of lighting system can also be used to help staff who work unconventional hours stay healthy. If night staff are exposed to short-wavelength, cool white light, they can stay alert and focused throughout the night because their bodies will not be trying to produce melatonin.

    As the cost of LED luminaires continues to drop, this exciting technology continues to have an increasing potential to greatly impact healing environments for the better. Lighting manufacturers are releasing products and systems that will make designing systems like this a more straightforward, accessible process.

    As we work to improve the design of healing environment, let’s utilize human-centric lighting technologies to bring the nature of light into our buildings and let it connect with patients and staff. Understanding the nature of light will help us design healthier environments.

    We can create spaces where the natural rhythms of healing are supported. Lighting that reinforces that process will only serve to let the body do its job and heal.

    Julie Allen is a lighting designer at Coffman Engineers, and has nine years of experience providing award-winning lighting and electrical design services for health care, educational and civic projects throughout Washington.

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