We need dark nights to fight health disorders

By Dr Agnivesh
Jyotiraditya Kannankara

The Earth, its existence from time immemorial has been following the cycle of day and night with a predictable 24-hour pattern of light and dark. But in this new era of fast life where we are flooded with artificial lights, can we say the same about our nights? Time is a limited resource and, to make full use of it, the night has been illuminated and kept occupied these days. Even when we sleep, street lamps and security lights pierce the darkness around us.
Our efforts to gain freedom from the natural constraints of day and night may have come at a price. With the transformation of nights into days by the advent of artificial lighting we are certainly losing out on natural darkness and its beauty unknowingly. In fact, we are creating a conflict between what we want to do and what our internal timekeeper, the biological clock, prepares us for. This is a serious issue posing crucial adverse impact on health, psyche and even affect other animals as well creating environmental and ecological problems.
The nights of course are not so dark now as they used to be, a fact that needs to be admitted with guilt. The incredible view of a clear night sky with the moon and stars shining brightly is an alien story for the kids of this generation. The sky is just not visible with the neon-LED lights overpowering the nights and blinding the eyes of those who try to catch a glimpse of the nightscape. However, the loss of darkness is no longer considered a matter of sentimental or aesthetic loss.
Researches on the subject of artificial light at night in the last decade establish serious health consequences. It causes sleep deprivation. Sleep disorders are associated with many major diseases. The absence of true continuous darkness might be affecting our quality of sleep. Constant bright light that has long been used as a means of torture clearly disrupts peaceful sleep since the message given to the brain is to wake up, leaving the person drained of energy each day without adequate sleep.
Another major after-effect is the interference with our circadian rhythm causing an imbalance. Circadian rhythm is the internal 24-hour clock that coordinates biological processes in our body by remaining tuned to natural cycles of light and dark. Toying with this will create serious threat to our well-being.
Being too much exposed to artificial lighting hampers production of the hormone melatonin, the lack of which is said to be one of the reasons leading to cancer. Melatonin secreted by brain plays a very important role in the sleep cycle as well as mood of a person. The increasing risk of other diseases due to this problem is also being investigated by researchers.
We need both light and darkness with equal importance on Earth. A major section of species on earth are nocturnal — they depend on darkness for their survival. Stealing away their habitat would mean them venturing out into our spaces and being destructive during daytime. Bats are unable to hunt for prey due to excessive light at night. Moths and other insects that get attracted to the lights at night die the unnatural way. This results in destroying the ecological balance by stripping the food chain of its protein. Animals will be pushed towards extinction if the illuminated nights continue for long.
It has been argued that keeping the streets bright and lighted at night in the changed times will ensure social safety. But does more and more light keep us safer? Have the crimes reduced due to excessive lighting? This is a complex issue. While some amount of light is good, extreme amount of lighting can be disastrous to all lives depending on the situations and places. With the brightly lighted nights, the vehicles out on roads are also much higher contributing to increased carbon emissions and thereby worsening the global warming issue for the world.
The countries and organisations worldwide are slowly awakening into the idea of saving the darkness of nights. France has recently passed an ordinance to put off all lights by 1 am.
The WHO has described the ‘night shift’ as being probably a carcinogen to human community. The message to be taken from all this is that of maintaining the balance between keeping up with requirements of modern times yet not destroying the natural aspects of our environment essential for the survival of life.

(The author is a multiple world records holder)

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