The headache of electric lights

person holding white light bulb

“Take a video of the light on your phone,” suggested my colleague, pointing up at the long fluorescent lamps that lit up the office.

“A video? Why?”

“I read that some lamps flicker. You can’t see it but if you take a video then watch the video on your phone you might be able to see it.”

My curiosity peaked, I picked up my phone and dutifully took a video of the lights above my desk. My headache beat a tattoo on against the inside of my skull as I filmed. Thump, thump, thump. A constant reminder that spending hours inside under artificial lighting, eyes straining to focus on a computer screen, with stale too-cold AC air blasting down on me, was unnatural af.

My colleague came around my desk and looked over my shoulder as I played the video back on my phone. “There!” She pointed at the screen. “I can see it flickering. That’s probably the reason for your headaches.”

“Holy shit,” I breathed out. “I thought it was the lights but I had no idea why. This makes so much sense.”

The reason, or perhaps just one of the reasons, for the thumping headaches I got whenever I was in the office for several hours was right there on my phone. I was struggling with the headaches as they would persist when I went home, like some kind of weird hangover from being in such an unnatural environment for too long. And just like that, I had finally tracked down the cause – artificial lighting.

When I worked from home, or it was a day off, I used the sun as my light and I never got a headache. I had had this nagging suspicion about the lights for weeks, and when I finally voiced it to my colleague she blew my mind with her flickering lamp response.

Some fluorescent lamps emit light in a pulsing manner. You can’t see it with the naked eye but if you film it, you might be able to pick it up. Those long lamps so common in office buildings, hospitals and warehouses are common culprits. Some people seem to be able to go about their day under those lights just fine but others, like me, are more sensitive to it.

(I always wonder if the sensitivity is partially down to the fact that I’m healthy… Hear me out. I think a lot of people with poor health are so used to it that they just accept feeling crappy on a daily basis and think it’s normal. But I feel great most days, so when something is off, even something small, I really feel it and it bugs me. But back to lighting now…)

I already knew that artificial lights weren’t great. The lux (measurement of light) that the sun emits is anywhere from 1,000 lux on an overcast day to 120,000 lux in bright sunlight. But your average lightbulb is a measly 250 to 500 lux. Most office spaces don’t get higher than 500 lux. So basically being under artificial lights never really wakes up your body the same way being outside does. Even on a cloudy day, the sun is still far brighter than the office, so your body gets the wake up call loud and clear.

That means that when it comes to night time and the sun goes down, your body gets the bed time call loud and clear as well. You get nice and sleepy and can nod off easily… Unless you mess it up with artificial lighting.

Artificial lights stay at a uniform brightness all day and night. They don’t wax and wane the same way the sun does, the way we have evolved to expect over a 24 hour period, and our bodies rely on. That’s why going outside for just half an hour in the mornings improves sleep during the night. And that’s also why having all the lights blazing right before you go to bed is not at all conducive to sleep. Remember, a candle is only 1-10 lux. So humans definitely have not been chilling under 500 lux artificial lights for centuries. Electric lighting in the home did not become common till the 1930s and it wasn’t as bright as today’s lights.

And I’m not even talking about the blue light emitted from phone screens and TVs and computers. Blue light suppresses your natural melatonin production (the sleep hormone) but I don’t think for one minute that blue light blocking glasses are the cure. All artificial lights are going to keep you awake, and the brightness of your phone screen and the fact you’re holding it inches from your face matters, too. Phone screens emit 40 lux of light from a distance! Plus, watching stimulating Netflix shows or doom scrolling social media is not exactly conducive to sleep either.

Prolonged exposure to artificial lighting in sensitive people like me can cause dizziness, headaches, eye pain, impaired vision, anxiety, depression, nausea and, of course, disrupted sleep. On the flip side, sunlight has a wealth of positive health effects – see my blog post about it here – like increasing happiness, lowering blood pressure, improving bone health and immunity, and even protecting against some cancers.

That’s all well and good to know, but what if you’re stuck in an office space with no windows? If I were you, I’d try to get outside as much as I could before and after work. If possible, take a walk on your lunch break. For those lucky enough to be by a window, open it if you can. And if you work from home, take your laptop outside! And of course, when night time hits, dim the lights in the house and put that phone away for your bedtime wind down.

As for me, once I was armed with the flickering light video on my phone, I ended up limiting my time in the office in that job. And whenever I needed to be there, I parked far away and used the walk as a chance to get fresh air and sunshine. Inside, I tried to take frequent walks to the break room, where I could sit next to the windows for a bit. This had the bonus of giving my eyes a break from the computer screen as well. And after work, I got outside. It wasn’t perfect, life never is, but at least I knew what the problem was so I could try to solve it as best I could.

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