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Artificial light exposure increases the risk for obesity among children. Light is the primary signal that entrains the body’s master clock to set its 24-hour circadian cycle. Consequently, the body is synchronized to external light-dark cycles. In recent decades, exposure to light from artificial sources (rather than natural ones) has increased, paralleling the global increases in obesity among adults. Findings from a 2016 study suggest that exposure to artificial light increases the risk for obesity among children.

Global health experts estimate that more than 42 million children under the age of five years have obesity, roughly one-fourth of whom live in developing nations. Obesity increases a person’s risk for developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. It also imposes considerable financial costs at the individual, healthcare system, and national level.

The study involved 48 preschool-aged children receiving daycare services in Australia. The investigators measured the children’s baseline body mass index (BMI), sleep duration and timing, light exposure, and physical activity levels via clinical assessment, parent questionnaires, and light and activity trackers. They repeated these measures 12 months later.

They found that at baseline, children who had longer early exposure to moderate intensity light (such as that from artificial sources) were more likely to have higher BMI, while children who had longer afternoon exposure to bright light (such as that from natural sources) tended to have lower BMI. At the second assessment, the investigators found that even after taking into account sleep duration and timing, BMI, and activity levels, children who had more total light exposure at baseline (due to having earlier exposure) gained more weight than their peers. Specifically, for every hour earlier that the children were exposed to light, they experienced a 0.6 unit increase in BMI. The investigators posited that although this was a small increase, it could be an indicator of a life-long trajectory toward weight gain.

These findings suggest that greater light exposure, especially when it occurs early in the day from artificial light sources, contributes to weight gain in children. Interestingly, adults that receive early exposure to bright light typically sleep better – a key to maintaining a healthy weight. Learn more in this clip featuring Dr. Matthew Walker.

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