Northwestern University researchers discovered people who had most of their daily exposure to even moderately bright light in the morning had a significantly lower body mass index (BMI) than those who had most of their light exposure later in the day. (BMI is a ratio calculated from a person’s weight and height.)
“The earlier this light exposure occurred during the day, the lower individuals’ body mass index,” said co-lead author Kathryn Reid, Ph.D. “The later the hour of moderately bright light exposure, the higher a person’s BMI.”
The impact of morning light exposure on body weight was not influenced by an individual’s physical activity level, caloric intake, sleep timing, age, or season. Researchers found this factor accounted for about 20 percent of a person’s BMI.
“Light is the most potent agent to synchronize your internal body clock that regulates circadian rhythms, which in turn also regulate energy balance,” said study senior author Phyllis C. Zee, M.D.
“The message is that you should get more bright light between eight a.m. and noon.” About 20 to 30 minutes of morning light is enough to affect BMI.
“If a person doesn’t get sufficient light at the appropriate time of day, it could de-synchronize your internal body clock, which is known to alter metabolism and can lead to weight gain,” Zee said.
The exact mechanism of how light affects body fat requires further research, she noted.
The study may be found in the journal PLOS ONE.
“Many people do not get enough natural light in the morning,” Zee said, “because the American lifestyle is predominantly indoors. We also work in poorly lit environments, usually about 200 to 300 lux.”
In the study, 500 lux was “the magic number” or minimum threshold for having a lower BMI. Even on a cloudy day, outdoor light is more than 1,000 lux of brightness.
It is difficult to achieve this light level with usual indoor lighting, the scientists noted.
“Light is a modifiable factor with the potential to be used in weight management programs,” Reid said. “Just like people are trying to get more sleep to help them lose weight, perhaps manipulating light is another way to lose weight.”
Giovanni Santostasi, Ph.D., a physicist by training, developed a new measure for the study that integrates the timing, duration, and intensity of light exposure into a single number called mean light timing or MLiT.
He searched for a correlation between light exposure timing, duration, or intensity in the study raw data, but none of those factors individually were associated with BMI. It was only when he began combining parameters, that he saw “the strong signal” when all three were examined together.
“I saw that what seemed to be most associated with body mass index was not just how much light you receive but when you get it and for how long,” Santostasi said.
The study included 54 participants (26 males, 28 females), an average age of 30. They wore a wrist actigraphy monitor that measured their light exposure and sleep parameters for seven days in normal-living conditions. Their caloric intake was determined from seven days of food logs.
The finding emphasizes the importance of “circadian health” in which exposure to light and dark is synchronized with your internal body clock.
“We focus on how too much light at night is bad; it’s also bad not to get enough light at the appropriate time during the day,” Zee said.
As part of a healthy lifestyle, people should be encouraged to get more appropriate exposure to light. Workplaces and schools should have windows.
Employees should be encouraged to go outside for lunch or breaks, and indoor lighting should be improved in the school and workplace.
“This is something we could institute early on in our schools to prevent obesity on a larger scale,” Zee said.
While duration and timing of sleep was not linked to the results, “owl” chronotypes, who stay up later and sleep later, would be a population affected by later light exposure. But even “larks,” those who wake early, would be affected by lack of early light if they stayed inside in the morning.
While the study was not designed to examine how light exposure affects body fat, previous research at Northwestern and elsewhere shows light plays a role in regulating metabolism, hunger, and satiety.
Source: Northwestern University