Do you suffer from mal-illumination? The phrase, coined by light science pioneer John Ott, suggests that people are suffering from a lack of natural light much like those who are malnourished.
I used to consider my sunglasses an essential part of life in Arizona. After reading Health and Light by John Ott, I consider them a hindrance – unless I need them for safety. I’d much rather wear a hat with a visor.
The influence of John Ott
Ott (1909-2000) experimented in the field of time-lapse photography in the 1930s. Soon he was sought after by Disney and eventually had his own weekly TV show. With his heavy traveling and media schedule, Ott developed arthritis, often walking with a cane. After inadvertently breaking his regular eyeglasses and working outside for several hours, Ott noticed improvement in his level of pain. He and his wife promptly traveled to Florida to see if the association between unfiltered light and improved arthritis was real.
“Much of the time was spent sitting under a palm tree where I could read or look out into the open and still receive the benefits of natural sunlight in contrast to artificial light or sunlight filtered through glass. Fortunately, I was able to read without my glasses, needing them primarily for distant vision. My particular reason for not wearing dark glasses was that in addition to the glass itself filtering out virtually all the ultraviolet and certain other shorter wavelengths of sunlight energy, the characteristics of the light are further changed depending on the color of the glass.”
Ott avoided all television and driving during that week. He even avoided looking through window glass, choosing to spend many hours a day outside.
“There was no doubt about it. My arthritis was definitely much better, and I was satisfied it was not my imagination or wishful thinking. Furthermore, after several days of not wearing glasses at all, my eyes were no longer extra sensitive to the bright sunlight even on the beach. Before the week was up, I played several rounds of gold on a short nine-hole course and went walking on the beach without my cane. I felt like a new person.”
Ott’s career took a dramatic turn. He devoted the remainder of his life to the benefits of natural light vs. the hazards of artificial light.
The website Science of Light is a non-profit organization dedicated to continuing Ott’s work. The site offers a free E-book, educational resources, and full spectrum light bulbs. Check out Science of Light here.
Each eye contains 137 million photoreceptors. 130 million of them are called rods, 7 million called cones. These photoreceptors transform light into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain at a rate of 234 miles per hour. Some travel to the visual cortex, others to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is our chief operating officer overseeing such processes as body temperature, appetite, heart rate, hormones, and much more. It is also intricately linked with the pineal gland, the distributor of melatonin, that dictates when and how well we sleep.
Note in the above image how closely aligned these critical glands are with our eyes. It is easy to see why Ott concludes Health and Light this way,
“We have finally learned that light is a nutrient much like food, and like food, the wrong kind can make us ill and the right kind can help keep us well.”
There is much to say about wrong vs. right kinds of light. Given that sunlight offers more than 1500 types of wavelengths that nourish our eyes, it makes sense that artificial light or filtered light can’t offer the full benefit of natural light.
(I’ve also created a sleep sanctuary since learning about the connection between melatonin and the pineal gland. See Sleep, Melatonin and Electronic Devices.)
What about eye damage without sunglasses?
It’s true that too much sun can do harm to your eyes. Possible manifestations include surfer’s eye (damage to the whites of the eyes) and macular degeneration. However, sitting in the shade and enjoying full spectrum natural light is generally not associated with these injuries.
I have learned to listen to my body when it comes to virtually everything I do in life. From the food I eat, to the health of my indoor environmental, my body lets me know what works or doesn’t work. If I encounter an afternoon glare while driving I have sunglasses on hand to help. If the noon time sun feels too strong, I move to the shade. Overall, I’ve noticed great improvement in my mood, energy, and sleep quality since moving away from sunglasses.
I now intentionally spend a minimum of two hours a day outside when possible. See How I Learned to Spend Time Outdoors.
Interested in learning more about natural light?
Light: Medicine of the Future, by Jacob Liberman, O.D., PH.D.
Health and Light, by John N. Ott
The Healing Sun: Sunlight and Health in the 21st Century, by Richard Hobday
Angela Burch says
Very interesting article, Andrea. Great insight!
I’m looking forward to reading Health and Light!
Andrea Fabry says
I have no doubt you will love it as much as I do.
Zee Dean says
Very interesting article – someone else just mentioned the benefits of natural light. I was just curious as to how people with severe pollen allergies handle this. This is all still fairly new to me, but I have five boys and I want to leave a legacy of good health so I’m on a new journey of trying to figure this out a bite at a time.
Andrea Fabry says
This is a great question, Zee. If 15 minutes is tolerable during a tough time of year, I would imagine it is worth it. If there are better locations, away from the plants that aggravate, then I would also think it’s worth it to be outside. No easy answers that’s for sure.
Sarah Nenni Daher says
This was definitely an interesting read, Andrea. I grew up in Texas and got into the habit of wearing polarized, protective sunglasses and wear them even now, living in Seattle. I’ve seen the damage too much sun can do (on both the eyes, with yellowing, and the skin, with severe wrinkling around the eyes).
I’ll definitely be doing a bit more reading on this. Thank you for sharing this!
Andrea Fabry says
Yes, too much direct sun is harmful. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Sarah.
I’m a bit torn here. It sounds like Ott’s experiment had only a single subject — himself. It also didn’t control for other factors, like air quality, temperature and humidity, stress levels, placebo effect… I could be wrong, you are just writing a review/summary so maybe you skipped those parts. I am, bowever, skeptical in the face of limited actual science — though I am happy the quality of his life was improved for whatever reason.
As I said, though, I am torn. That is because I do know that sunlight does have a positive effect on people. Different light frequencies are known to impact serotonin and melatonin levels, for example, and I believe dopamine is also impacted. A connection to the sun likely also caused him to have a sleep-wake cycle that was more in tune with his environment — something that could also impact other biological functions. Perhaps most importantly, though, sunlight triggers the production of vitamin D which, if you have ever had a lack of, you know is important for, among other things, mood and brain health.
My theory is that the lifestyle changes Ott made were actually more complex than just the sunlight — though that was his motivator. He became happier and happier people are more able to process pain and, thus, hurt less. His guess is sound, and worked for him, but his research wasn’t rigorous enough to say A led to B.
Does it matter for the sake of giving it a shot and seeing if it helps you? Do the specifics of WHY it worked really make a difference to someone just trying to make their day better? Probably not. So, best of luck to everyone, I hope that the results are as positive for you as they were for Ott. 🙂
Andrea Fabry says
Hi Joanne! I didn’t do his research justice. He did a lot more research than that. I thought his life story was interesting, but appreciate the point you are raising. There is so much research in the other resources I mentioned that is specific and scientific. My hope is this post points others to that research. Thanks for your comment!
Very interesting and informative article. I wear glasses a lot of the time so I can’t wear sunglasses.
I agree sunlight (natural) is beneficial to everyone, for numerous reasons. Like anything, moderation is key. I feel much better when I can be outdoors vs indoors, the difference is extremely noticeable to me.
Ali @ Little Miss Poof says
Definitely well researched and well written. Thanks for this! I am a HUGE sunglass wearer, and can barely walk outside without them. I love natural light and being outside. I will definitely be thinking twice when I reach for a pair now.
Yanique Chambers says
I’m vitamin D deficient and have seasonal affective disorder so I know firsthand the benefits of natural light and it makes a huge difference on my emotional well being. In the winter I used a light box, and even though it is artificial light, it is meant to mimic what being out in the sun feels like. It is such a huge help. Nothing like being in real sunlight, but it helps. Great article!
Amy Nielson says
Interesting. I was told light can help with depression as well. I’ve started opening all my blinds first thing in the morning for a good start to my day.
Andrea Fabry says
It really makes a difference, doesn’t it?
April Rutherford says
How interesting! Thanks for sharing! I can not keep up with sunglasses to save my life, so this is good news for me, haha!
I’ve read about the health effects of natural light too and how it makes us feel better. But, over here, it’s so terribly hot to be outside – you get burnt and could get heat stroke. The only time I will be outside is early morning, before 10am, and at dusk.
Jenn @ mommytime365 says
What an interesting post, thank you so much for sharing… Makes me want to leave the shades off.
Shailee Butalia says
I hate wearing sunglasses! I’m glad to see that it has some positive effects.
What if you are wearing contact lenses? Does it make a difference?
Andrea Fabry says
Good question. I stopped wearing contacts for this reason…most of the time I don’t wear glasses at all, which has made my eyes stronger. But that’s just me following my instincts. I don’t know honestly.