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Are LED lights making us ill?

Over the last decade, much of Europe and the US have changed the way they illuminate city and town streets. Not only there, also in the Philippines. And while checking my monthly electric bill, I followed many councils and local governments  having replaced high-energy sodium bulbs (the warmer, yellow ones) with energy-saving LED bulbs (with a blue light emitting diode, which can feel harsh in comparison). 

As well as street lights, most of us are exposed to blue light through smartphones, computers, TVs, and in the home.

Only an hour ago, I came across a short BBC-article written by Lucy Jones saying that earlier this year, the World Journal of Biological Psychiatry published a paper by a group of prominent psychiatrists that warned of the potential effects of LED lighting on mental illness.

It raised concerns about the influence of blue light on sleep, other circadian-mediated symptoms, use of digital healthcare apps and devices, and the higher sensitivity of teenagers to blue light. Indeed, using my tablet while already in bed during nighttime gave me some problems in getting to sleep.Or does my brain making a fool on me?

“My concern about LED lighting followed from a larger, earlier concern about the relationship between light exposure and the occurrence of manic and mixed symptoms in bipolar disorder,” said John Gottlieb, Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago and an author of the paper.

“I had already clearly seen that supplemental light exposure –  in the form of bright light therapy – was extremely helpful to patients with depression. What I was slower to realize was that excess and poorly-timed light exposure could have adverse effects on manic states and the sleep-wake cycle,” he said.

And here we are: the paper has implications for the treatment of mental illness. If a person is prescribed a self-monitoring app, and instructed to use their smartphone to document mood changes, for example, and they do this before bed, it could have an adverse effect on their sleep, circadian rhythms and health.

“Because they are ubiquitous, smartphones represent the larger public health hazard,” said Gottlieb. “Streetlights, though, are not benign and together with the entire set of nocturnal lighting for entertainment, traffic, reading, etc contribute to the phenomena of light pollution, which we are becoming increasingly sensitised to.”

As BBC-Lucy Jones explained in her article: studies of the impact of blue light on healthy adults show it inhibits Melatonin secretion which disrupts sleep and can affect quality of life, physical and mental health and susceptibility to illness. Previous studies of sleep disorders in children and adolescents show a clear and consistent relationship between sleep disorders and frequency of digital device usage.

Currently, the British National Sleep Foundation guidelines suggest not using technology 30 minutes before bed and removing technology for the bedroom. I'll try to follow the advise. However, there are currently no specific guidelines for people with an underlying mental illness or sensitivity to circadian disruption. We should give it a try, though I remember several decades ago, when we got the advise banning all electric alarm-clocks, radios and TV from our bedrooms.

As LED technology has rapidly spread across the globe, the focus has been on the visual element and the energy-saving element. Now, scientists, health professionals and the LED industry are working to minimize the blue light in LEDs and create customizable lights that won’t harm those suffering from psychiatric disorders.

Email: doringklaus@gmail.com or follow me in Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter or visit my www.germanexpatinthephilippines.blogspot.com or www.klausdoringsclassicalmusic.blogspot.com .

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