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Light sensitivity is a feminist issue

As today (the 8th of March) is International Women’s Day, I thought it appropriate to write a short piece about the impact of light sensitivity on women. Many more women than men contact LightAware about health problems caused by LED lighting. Because lights are now switched on most of the time both inside and outside of buildings (and on vehicles too), many light-sensitive women are now unable to leave their homes. This can lead to social isolation and depression.

If you look at the conditions where light sensitivity is a common symptom, most sufferers are women. The most common are:

  • ME/CFS (myalgic encephalitis or chronic fatigue syndrome) affects more women than men, in an approximate ratio of 4:1. In this respect, the disease is similar to other immuno-inflammatory conditions, such as lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, which are also more prevalent in women.
  • Systemic Lupus erythematosus (Lupus) – Lupus is about nine times more common in women than men. Sufferers may experience joint and muscle pain, extreme tiredness, headaches, mouth sores, high temperature, hair loss and rashes. In severe circumstances it can lead to heart, lung, brain or kidney damage.
  • Migraine – is mainly considered as ‘a woman’s complaint’, even though it is common in men too. Migraine prevalence has been variously reported as being 5-25% of women and 2-10% in men. Rates of Migraine are similar in both sexes until puberty when the rate in women increases. The frequency, duration, and disability of attacks tend also to be higher in women. An estimated 25 million sick days are taken in the UK alone each year because of migraine, yet it remains one of the world’s most under-funded diseases in terms of research and migraines have been less investigated than other ailments. Perhaps this is because more women than men suffer from the condition?
  • Long Covid – more recently another post-infectious syndrome that is diagnosed in more women than men.- of which more later,

We now understand that women respond to infection with more robust innate and adaptive immune responses compared with males, which may be why more women than men suffer from conditions such as CFS, Lupus and long Covid.

lights in the palms. Women's hands holding a garland. Girl in a blue sweater with Christmas lights in her hands, warm Christmas mood, soft focus

To add insult to injury, women’s problems with lighting are often disbelieved by employers and GPs. It is well known that some (predominantly male) physicians underrate pain in female patients. There are also conditions, where sufferers are predominantly women, such as ME/CFS, which have not been acknowledged as real by male GPs or deserving of treatment or research funding. These prejudices are also a big issue for light-sensitive women

Long Covid, is a more recent post-infectious syndrome that is diagnosed in more women than men. Worryingly, signs of these age-old biases have crept in over the past year with long Covid. There are anecdotal reports of female patients complaining that their persistent symptoms have been dismissed or attributed to anxiety. Interviewed on the BBC, Dr Janet Scott, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Glasgow, says that there remains a school of thought within the academic community that the long Covid gender skew may simply be an artefact of women being more likely to report symptoms than men. “I don’t buy it myself,” says Scott. “I think it plays into the narrative of, ‘Don’t worry about long Covid, it’s just a bunch of hysterical, middle-aged women.’”

Despite the enormous economic costs, researchers into migraine receive the least public funding of any neurological illness in Europe. In the US, where migraines affect an estimated 15% of people, the condition received $22m in research funding (£17m) in 2017. To compare it with asthma, which affects half as many people, 13 times that amount ($286m or £218m) was spent on research. When migraine is studied, it often is affected by a trend seen in other healthcare research as most migraine research on animals has been carried out in males even though migraine is much more prevalent in women than in men.

I have only listed a few examples, but it’s clear that there are several conditions suffered by many more women than men, and which are associated with, or triggered by, exposure to light sources such as LEDs. Light-disabled people would like it to be understood that we are not simply kill joys but are people who would like to get our lives back. We are not suffering from some sort of delusion or are “hysterical” – we are unfortunate in having a condition that has been induced by a change in the built environment. We have not changed – it’s the lighting that has changed. The problem is not helped by local authorities who, despite their Equality Duty, continue to grant permission for the installation of unnecessary lighting.

Perhaps we are seeing, yet again, a problem that is not being taken seriously because it is suffered by more women than men. Perhaps it is time we started to consider whether the disbelief and isolation experienced by people who are made ill by LED lighting, whether men or women, is taking place because it is largely a female problem.

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By Dr JM, North East England

Blogs are written by LightAware supporters in a personal capacity

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