Our ancestors didn’t have artificial lighting. For thousands of years, civilisation revolved around daylight, and many religions worshipped the sun as the source of all life. The idea of discussing the benefits of natural light wouldn’t even have occurred to anyone before the end of the 19th century (when electric lighting started to become popular). But our modern reality means that as our working and living patterns change, we’ve become hugely dependant on artificial light - to the detriment of our physical and psychological health, and our overall productivity.
Exposure to natural light helps our bodies produce Vitamin D, improves our circadian rhythms and sleep patterns, helps us to focus, enables us to get more done, and even makes us happier. Ensuring we get enough of this vital resource is key to our physical and psychological wellbeing. But according to research, we now spend close to 90% of our lives indoors - making it difficult to experience the benefits of natural light, as we simply aren’t getting enough of it.
Regardless of our modern innovations, human beings are still biologically programmed to benefit from exposure to daylight. The rapid rate of technological advancement has vastly overtaken the speed of our natural evolution, and as a result of artificial lighting, we no longer experience the day and night cycles our bodies are designed to work around.
Thankfully, the benefits of natural light are now well-researched and documented, and the case is clear for ensuring we all get as much access to daylight as possible. These benefits can be best understood in two distinct ways - the benefits natural lighting has on our bodies, and the benefits it has on the buildings we spend so much time in.
The Benefits of Natural Light for our Bodies and Minds:
The human body is the product of thousands of years of evolution, and it is built to be exposed to natural light regularly. Daily, in fact. As the sun comes up, we’re supposed to get up with it, and our circadian rhythms (which govern the quality of our sleep) are programmed to respond and adapt to sunlight. But the benefits of natural light don’t just stop at a good night’s rest:
Natural light gives us Vitamin D:
It’s fairly common knowledge that daylight is our fundamental source of vitamin D, but what many people might not know is exactly what we need it for. Vitamin D is the key ingredient in strong bone development - our body needs it to absorb calcium, and it helps us to develop in infancy and as we grow. A lack of vitamin D has also been linked to depression, obesity, and possibly even multiple sclerosis, with a gene defect resulting in vitamin D deficiency being linked to the condition.
When it comes to the question of how best to obtain this crucial resource, natural light is the answer. While supplements can give us a boost of vitamin D, and foods (like milk) can top us up, they can actually lead to us ingesting too much - causing completely new issues by raising our blood calcium levels.
Sunlight doesn’t give us vitamin D directly, but it helps our body to produce its own. Natural light allows our body to strengthen itself, and it can’t oversupply us; if our body has enough vitamin D, it just stops making more. This means you literally can’t have too much of a good thing when it comes to this particular benefit of natural light.
Natural light improves our productivity and focus:
We all need to be productive. From the moment our alarm goes and we start getting ready for work, we need to be focussed and efficient (at least once we’ve had coffee), and our success in our jobs and lives overall is often judged by how much we can get done with the time and resources we have. One of the great benefits of natural light is that it actually makes us more productive.
While it’s not quite as simple as ‘step outside for half an hour each day to get 30% more done’, there are strong links between the benefits of natural light exposure and our overall productivity. Particularly in the workplace, natural light has been linked to improved focus, efficiency, and less illness with reduced absenteeism. Research indicates that the benefits of daylight exposure at work included everything from improved morale to an increased ability to remember numbers backwards.
One of the biggest factors also directly related to our productivity is our sleep quality - and there’s plenty of evidence to show that if we sleep better, we work better. Natural light, as it happens, is also a big factor in this:
Natural light helps our body clock keep time:
Our circadian rhythms are pretty important. They’re essentially the rhythms that our body uses to coordinate all of its functions - from digestion to cell regeneration - and they’re close to, but not exactly, 24 hours in length. Or at least they should be. One study conducted by doctors at the Harvard School of Medicine stated that our circadian rhythms must be ‘reset on a daily basis in order to remain in synchrony with external environmental time’, and that ‘regular exposure to light and darkness’ was key to this.
This is fairly easy if you live outside. As the sun rises, our bodies innately understand that it’s time to reset the clock, and as the sun sets, the rhythm is maintained and we are prepared for rest and rejuvenation. The problem is that in our modern lives, we’re constantly exposed to light from all kinds of unnatural sources, without any regularity at all. Phone screens, computers, TV, and even simple artificial lighting throw our bodies out of kilter, and after the sun sets we essentially trick our biology into thinking it’s still daytime.
One of the benefits of natural light is that it can help our bodies realign to the natural rhythm they’re supposed to keep. Sleeping in a room with plenty of unobscured glass windows and waking up as the sun rises is a good habit to keep. Even simply getting some sunlight throughout the day can reattune our bodies to the natural rhythms of daylight, distinctly improving our sleep, and with it our effectiveness the next day.
Natural light improves psychological wellbeing:
The benefits of natural light on the way we feel don’t just apply to our physical wellbeing, but also to our psychological health and mood. A lack of daylight can make us feel down, depressed and anxious, and the significance of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in the UK speaks volumes about how important daylight is to our mental wellbeing.
No one likes getting up in the dark during the cold winter months, but getting enough natural light can actively combat negative psychological wellbeing. Studies have found that improved access to natural light can reduce levels of agitation and stress. The case is clear for the fact that getting more sunlight simply makes us feel better.
Natural light can benefit our buildings:
Making sure we get outside, and expose ourselves to enough sunlight is crucial to our wellbeing, but it’s only one part of ensuring we reap all the benefits that natural light has to offer us. Unlike our ancestors, most of us don’t live outside, and we spend a huge amount of time in our buildings. As ‘wellness architecture’ continues to emerge as an industry trend, it’s becoming clear that natural light isn’t just good for us - it’s actually good for our buildings too.
Natural light can improve energy efficiency:
In the average building, particularly commercial properties, lighting makes up a significant amount of the total energy expenditure/usage, and can contribute to around a third of your total energy bill. Electricity isn’t cheap, and constantly lighting an interior space can rack up a large bill in a surprisingly short space of time - particularly if your lighting option of choice isn’t energy-efficient.
Enter daylight. While the cost of installing windows, sliding glass doors or other glazing solutions might be initially higher than the average monthly power bill, once they’re installed, they don’t cost anything to run (unless you opt for a motorised or electrically powered option of course), and they light your interior spaces up even more effectively than artificial lighting.
It’s not just lighting that can be optimised by using daylight in your interior spaces, but heating too. It might not seem obvious at first, but by choosing the right thermal glazing products, ‘solar gain’ (the heating effects of sunlight on an interior space) can be regulated and controlled. Essentially, with intelligent design you can not only light up, but also heat your home using natural sunlight, while adequate insulation can ensure this interior climate is maintained. Now that’s smart.
Opting to use natural light as your primary source in your home or commercial property will not only shave precious pennies off your electricity bills, but will also enable you to reap all of the other benefits natural light has on your health. Bargain.
Natural light can help prevent mould:
It may seem like an old wives’ tale, but natural light could even help keep your home clean and mildew free. Anyone who’s lived in a small flat, or dark property with inadequate windows, lighting, and ventilation will likely nod sagely when the topic of mildew or mould comes up. Mould thrives in the dark, and making sure your home is exposed to plenty of sunlight can help prevent the spores from taking hold (which might sound like the narration of a particularly cheesy B movie, but is actually surprisingly accurate).
Natural light could be central to future designs:
Granted, this isn’t so much a direct benefit of natural light, but more an indication of how we’ve come to recognise its importance in our modern lives. We wrote an article on whether or not wellness architecture was the future of the industry, and it’s certainly true that natural light is a significant part of this. What’s equally important, however, is to recognise the rising emphasis of ‘daylighting’.
According to the World Building Design Guide, daylighting is ‘the controlled admission of natural light, direct sunlight and diffused-skylight to reduce electric lighting and save energy’. As time goes on, architects and designers are finding innovative new ways to factor daylight into their designs, both to save money, and improve wellbeing.
Take a look at our Photon Space for an example of this taken to the limits of technical possibility. We designed and built the world’s first all-glass living environment, and sponsored Oxford University to undertake research on participants living in this glass home, deepening our understanding of the effects of daylight on human biology.
It’s something that we - and many other designers, architects and specialists alike - are taking very seriously. It’s arguable that one of the benefits of natural light is simply how it’s inspiring us to approach the design of our buildings, workspaces and living environments, with the ultimate intention of improving our wellbeing and day to day living conditions.
Our ancestors may not have had artificial lighting, but the simple fact is that in the modern world, it’s an integral part of our daily lives. While daylight may no longer be the utterly integral part of our existence that it used to be, the benefits of natural light are numerous. Understanding the effect natural light has on the way we feel, how productive we are, and the buildings we spend so much time in is central to improving our rapidly advancing modern existence.
We might be a long way of from a world in which we all live in glass enclosures like the Photon Space; but as our knowledge of the importance of sunlight deepens, and we learn more about the benefits of natural light, we can start to make conscious decisions about how to improve our health and lives. Keeping these things in mind as we progress as a society and as individuals could be the key to a better, brighter future.