Harnessing light to benefit our hospitals
Light is important. It helps plants grow, creates energy and sustains life. But how does light affect our health?
The human body operates on 24-hour cycles called circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are produced by internal body clocks that help to regulate when we should be awake and when to go to sleep, among many other things.
The light from the sun provides a spectrum of coloured light: red, orange, yellow, green and blue light. The light at the blue end of the spectrum is particularly useful in telling our internal clocks what time of day it is.
Why is blue light so important?
Blue light is processed by the circadian photoreceptor known as melanopsin in the eye. The cells in our retina that contain melanopsin are connected to a small area at the base of the brain containing the body clock, but also to other areas that control mood and help us maintain alertness.
When these photoreceptors process blue light, it signals that it is time to be alert. At night, it is not only alerting, but it’s also tricking the clock into thinking it’s still day and suppressing melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone. Therefore, it is important to reduce exposure to blue light during the night, prior to bed.
The artificial light in workplaces, in homes and on mobile, computer and television screens can have serious implications on sleep quality and general health. This is because the body is not meant to be exposed to high levels of blue light well into the night.
How light can be used in the right way
A collaborative project led by the CRC for Alertness, Safety and Productivity (Alertness CRC) and involving Versalux Lighting Systems and Monash University used this information about blue light to identify new lighting product specifications, leading to a new lighting system supported by science.
MelaGen is an interactive lighting system that can emit both blue-enriched and blue-depleted light at optimal levels.
This system can be used in several industries to heighten alertness and improve sleep quality. One of the key facilities that could benefit from this lighting system is hospitals.
Installing this custom-made lighting system in a hospital would mean that clinical areas, nurse stations and non-clinical staff areas can have blue-enriched light to increase the alertness of healthcare workers. This can be of great benefit for shift workers who may be experiencing fatigue. Other areas for patients will have lighting that shifts from blue-enriched light throughout the day, ending with blue-depleted light at nighttime — creating a calming effect and promoting good-quality sleep.
Quality sleep and having healthy circadian rhythms improves immune function and can assist the body to fight illness and infection and recover from injury. Therefore, having these lighting systems in hospitals could ultimately help people recover quicker.
In the current climate where health care is front of mind, we can better understand the significance of having a system like this put in place.
This technology is being installed in the neonatal ward at the Women and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide. It will introduce light sources that alter in colour spectrum and intensity over the course of the day to more closely mimic the natural day/night light cycle and ensure that the parents or visitors of the children in the ward maintain their natural body clocks.
This will ultimately lead to a calming effect on patients and visiting family members, making their time in hospital and their eventual transition home more comfortable.
It is exciting to see this research in action, but it is only the start. Over the next 10 years, we want to see all hospitals install these lighting systems to aid patients’ recovery.
Now that much of the light we are exposed to is artificial, we must have a greater understanding oft how it affects us. Let’s use our knowledge, research and technology to harness the benefits of light to improve our quality of life.
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