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Morning Blue Light and Afternoon Red Light Increases Alertness in Office Workers

December 10, 2019

Morning Blue Light and Afternoon Red Light Increases Alertness in Office Workers

New research from LRC and GSA explores how light impacts alertness and sleep quality

Researchers from the Lighting Research Center (LRC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) recently published the latest in a series of studies exploring how light impacts alertness during the day and sleep quality at night in daytime office workers.

The study field tested a novel luminaire developed by the LRC to promote circadian entrainment and alertness in the office environment. Nineteen participants from three U.S. Department of State office buildings in Washington, D.C., completed the 3-week study. The luminaires, mounted near the participants’ computer monitors delivered: (1) morning saturated blue light delivering a circadian stimulus (CS) of 0.4, (2) midday polychromatic white light, delivering a CS of 0.3, and (3) afternoon saturated red light, delivering a CS close to zero. Objective and subjective measures of rest–activity, sleep, vitality, and alertness were used to evaluate the lighting interventions.

Results show that participants exhibited more consolidated rest-activity patterns, indicating better circadian entrainment, and woke up earlier during the intervention compared to baseline. The morning blue light appears to have advanced participants’ circadian phase, causing participants to wake up earlier in the morning. The afternoon red light elicited an acute alerting response close to the post-lunch dip around 3 p.m., reducing subjective sleepiness and increasing subjective vitality and energy.

These field results are the first to demonstrate that red light in combination with ambient white light provides an effective alerting stimulus, and support the inference that light exposures, when properly applied, can promote circadian entrainment and increase alertness.

The research paper, “Light, entrainment and alertness: A case study in offices” was published earlier this month in the journal Lighting Research & Technology. Authors include Mariana Figueiro, Mark Rea, Levent Sahin, and Charles Roohan from the LRC.

Previous LRC studies measured light levels for 109 participants at five federal office buildings designed to maximize daylight availability indoors. Figueiro and her team found that even in open offices with many, large windows, office workers were not receiving enough light to stimulate their circadian system during the day, due to factors such as season, cloud cover, desk orientation, and window shade position.

In response to these findings, the research team theorized that supplemental electric lighting could be used to ensure that office workers receive enough light during the day, and installed circadian-effective lighting for 68 participants at four additional sites.

The study results showed that office workers felt much less sleepy with the use of supplemental electric lighting and, as hypothesized, they also reported feeling significantly more vital, energetic, and alert compared to baseline.

“The present findings show that a tailored lighting intervention can help entrain building occupants and can increase alertness during working hours. The ‘non-visual layer of light’ solution utilized in the present study is practical and inexpensive to implement, while helping to reinforce the bridge between laboratory results and field applications,” said Figueiro.

“Underwriters Laboratories will soon be publishing a Design Guideline for lighting offices, factories and educational facilities aimed at promoting better sleep for day-active, night-inactive occupants of buildings.  This study adds even more evidence that bright light during the day promotes and consolidates sleep at night,” said Rea.

Light has to enter the eye to be effective for circadian entrainment. People in modern society usually spend more than 90% of their time indoors in buildings, yet lighting indoors is typically not bright enough to stimulate the circadian clock. Typical office lighting provides less than 100 lux at the eye, whereas being outside on a sunny day will provide anywhere from 1,000 to more than 10,000 lux at the eye.

It is now known that most people are not getting enough light during the day. Unfortunately, too little light during the day is compounded by too much light at night. Many people use luminous electronic devices like smartphones and tablets in the evening or stay up late working on the computer. Light from these screens makes the brain think it’s time to wake up, just as you’re getting ready for bed.

Disruption of the 24-hour rhythm of light and dark affects every one of our biological systems from DNA repair in single cells to melatonin production by the pineal gland in the brain. Circadian disruption is most obviously linked with disruption of rest–activity patterns, which can cause sleepiness during the day and insomnia at night—but is also linked with increased risk for diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.

Exposure to a robust 24-hour light–dark cycle promotes circadian entrainment, which has many health benefits such as increased alertness and feelings of vitality during the day, improved mood, and better sleep at night. Recent research has shown that healthy, regular sleep patterns may even have a protective effect against Alzheimer’s disease.

About the Lighting Research Center

The Lighting Research Center (LRC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is the world's leading center for lighting research and education. Established in 1988 by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the LRC conducts research in light and human health, transportation lighting and safety, solid-state lighting, energy efficiency, and plant health. LRC lighting scientists with multidisciplinary expertise in research, technology, design, and human factors, collaborate with a global network of leading manufacturers and government agencies, developing innovative lighting solutions for projects that range from the Boeing 787 Dreamliner to U.S. Navy submarines to hospital neonatal intensive-care units. In 1990, the LRC became the first university research center to offer graduate degrees in lighting and today, offers a M.S. in lighting and a Ph.D. to educate future leaders in lighting. Learn more at www.lrc.rpi.edu.

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About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, 32 research centers, more than 145 academic programs, and a dynamic community made up of more than 7,900 students and more than 100,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include more than 145 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration.