Living in Light


Natural light makes us feel a certain way, when we’re bathed in it and beyond, throughout each day. As those days shorten, it’s a good time to turn your attention to getting enough of it…

As the clocks go back and mild dread of the darker mornings and evenings sets in, autumn may seem the wrong time of year to be thinking about natural light. But then there’s that low, early evening sunshine on a clear, crisp autumn day, reflecting off the Atlantic.

If you’re lucky enough to be sat on a dune or clifftop to catch the sunset, wrapped in a blanket and armed with a flask of something hot, expect skies cast in spectacular modes that change minute by minute; light pink at first before mauve and fiery orange, carving an arrow of light on the glistening water from the horizon all the way to you.

“Natural light has an advantage over artificial light in terms of allowing us to feel alert during the day and drowsy at night.”

As the light fades, the cold descends and the daylight vanishes, triggering a rise in your melatonin hormone levels, steering you instinctively towards home. Or at least, that’s what’s meant to happen; a healthy intake of natural light throughout the day to vitalise your body and stimulate your mind followed by total darkness to assist uninterrupted, high-quality sleep.

In reality our day-to-day exposure to artificial light and lack of exposure to natural light is playing havoc, disrupting our 24-hour biological clock and circadian rhythms. So what can help your body get back in sync with the phases of day and night while you’re on holiday?

Design for light

You may have heard the term circadian rhythms (circa: round, diem: day), referring to the body’s cycle of physiological patterns over a 24-hour period that evolved over millennia to sync with the light-dark cycle.

Natural light has an advantage over artificial light in terms of allowing us to feel alert during the day and drowsy at night, with our bodies being the most alert during the morning hours of daylight.

Electric light may be obligatory in extending our waking and working hours, as our daylight hours decrease substantially in autumn and winter. However as Professor Derk Jan-Dijk, Distinguished Professor of Sleep and Physiology at the University of Surrey, says, “[w]e are the only species to extend our day using artificial light, and this has consequences”. Even counting on ordinary electric bulbs as our only light source for a whole day, rather than spending time outdoors, may disrupt our circadian clock.

Architecture has an important role to play in how we access natural light throughout the year, utilising design to encourage generous amounts of natural light to flood through internal spaces. Think contemporary, spacious interiors, full-width, floor to ceiling windows with glazing and bifold glass, perfect filters for the soft autumn light.

 “Dawn and dusk in autumn are beautiful times of the day and the light is extraordinary at times.”

When it comes to orientation, north and south isn’t only a gardeners question. South-facing aspects enjoy more time each day to let the light in.

Illuminating views

And that muted light during the autumn and winter months has its own qualities. For more than a century, the unique quality of natural light has drawn painters to Cornwall’s shores, and remains a compelling source of inspiration. “We are surrounded by water which means we get a lot of sun reflection off the blue sea,” says landscape artist Nicola Mosley, whose Cornwall-based studio takes in a harbour view in Falmouth

“The light on a long hazy summer’s day is lovely,” Nicola adds. “But there’s something about the light during the autumn months; it can be more diffused and softer than summer and for me it’s my favourite time to paint. Dawn and dusk in autumn are beautiful times of the day and the light is extraordinary at times. Even in winter the clouds and mist refract the light in a beautiful soft way.”

“Regular good sleep, as well as being beneficial to us physically, helps us cognitively… to manage our emotions and stress levels better."

When it comes to interior and exterior spaces for making the most of natural light on holiday, terraces and balconies – with added blankets – mean ocean and sunset views in the open, all year round, any time of day. Wide, open-plan spaces allow light to travel freely and when it is time to switch on the lights, LED lighting can be a gentler alternative, in the same spectrum as daylight, keeping that natural ambience going into the evening.

Call of the outdoors

Dr Neil Stanley of the International Sleep Charity reminds us that “sleep is so central to how our bodies and minds function”. Regular good sleep, as well as being beneficial to us physically, helps us cognitively with decision-making and allows us to regulate and manage our emotions and stress levels better.

Studies show that people who suffer consistently poor sleep are, perhaps unsurprisingly, more prone to anxiety, depression, irritability, and the tendency to catastrophise. None of these states of mind are top of the list on holiday, where you should be relaxing and leaving with an invigorated body and mind.

“Donning coats and boots, or wetsuits and drysuits, and escaping through the front door bright and early on an autumn morning is uplifting on many levels, including that crucial intake of daylight”

Our body’s internal 24-hour clock can also be helped onto the right track through outdoor activity during the day. The stunning panoramic views, enjoyed through expansive glazing, can’t help but beckon you outside, on to the winding coast paths and cycle trails, or oceanside, for that spontaneous rush to the water’s edge for a bracing family swim or surf session.

Donning coats and boots, or wetsuits and drysuits, and escaping through the front door bright and early on an autumn morning is uplifting on many levels, including that crucial intake of daylight to synchronise your circadian rhythms, making you awake and alert.

Days well-spent in the natural light of the day could be the make or break, for refreshing minds and bodies, happier moods, and a good night’s sleep.