If you’re reading this at 3AM, chances are you’re one of 70 million Americans who suffer from some type of sleep disorder. Maybe you’re also frustrated by the adverse effects of sleeping pills, or you feel like lack of sleep is depleting your quality of life. Somewhere in your late-night internet research, you came across ‘red light therapy for sleep’, and you’re wondering, “How does that work?”
Before we dive into how getting red light therapy before bed can improve your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up feeling refreshed and rested the next morning, we need to first understand sleep disorders and their relationship to light.
What are Sleep Disorders and How Do They Affect You?
A sleep disorder is a catch-all phrase for conditions that prevent adequate, restful sleep. Lack of sleep is a widespread problem with serious consequences, such as automobile accidents, impaired learning, and a host of health issues including shortened lifespans.
Common Types of Sleep Disorders
Researchers have identified around 90 distinct types of sleep disorders. Here are the most common ones:
- Insomnia is the most commonly reported sleep disorder, affecting 10 percent of Americans. It’s defined as having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, even with the opportunity to get a full night’s sleep, and not due to substance use or medication conditions.
- Sleep apnea is irregular and often interrupted breathing during sleep. It contributes to hormonal imbalances, development of hypertension, arrhythmias, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, stroke, and diabetes.
- Narcolepsy and idiopathic hypersomnia is clinically significant excessive daytime sleepiness that is not due to circadian sleep disorder, sleep-disordered breathing, sleep deprivation, or any known medical conditions.
Circadian rhythm disorders are environmentally- or lifestyle-caused sleep disorders. Jet lag, shift work, competitive work cultures (i.e., staying up late to work), as well as easy access to TV and the Internet, have all been found to adversely affect sleep.
Consequences of Sleep Disorders
The various sleep disorders are somewhat different in the ways they manifest, but most share these common symptoms:
- Excessive and uncontrolled daytime sleepiness;
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep;
- High incidence of nightmares, sleepwalking, or other abnormal sleep behaviors;
- Restless legs syndrome;
- Clinically significant emotional distress (irritability, depression, and anxiety); and
- Social and occupational impairment, including falling asleep at the wheel or on the job.
An occasional sleepless night is not a problem; but if sleep deprivation becomes chronic, the cumulative, long-term effects seriously affect a person’s quality of life.
The public health consequences of sleep disorders are extremely serious as well. According to the Center for Disease Control, drowsy driving slows reaction times, affects decision-making, and makes for a distracted driver. This is a widespread problem: one in 25 adult drivers reports falling asleep at the wheel at least once within the past 30 days.
It’s no wonder, then, that drowsy driving is one of the main causes of traffic deaths. In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that drowsy driving resulted in 72,000 accidents, 44,000 injuries and 800 deaths. However, the numbers may be higher, with up to 6,000 annual traffic deaths resulting from drowsy driving.
And it’s not just on the road where accidents happen. The Challenger space shuttle disaster resulted from an error in judgment due to sleep deprivation.
Lack of Sleep: The Hidden Cause of Many Health Challenges
Despite a strong link between sleep loss and chronic health conditions such as hypertension and diabetes, physicians don’t always ask patients, “Are you getting enough sleep?” during examinations. As a result, 80 to 90 percent of adults suffering from sleep disorders such as sleep apnea remain undiagnosed. This is unfortunate, considering that sleep disorders are common and relatively straightforward to treat.
Left untreated, however, chronic sleep disorders have enormous impacts on health and well being. Some are acute—automobile accidents and poor work performance, for example. Others are long-term, creeping up on an individual in the form of obesity or high blood pressure. It stands to reason that if doctors aren’t routinely asking about a patient’s quality of sleep, the root cause of these conditions might go untreated.
How Light Affects Your Sleep
A key factor in your ability to fall and stay asleep is—you guessed it—light. But when it comes to sleep, different wavelengths of light have different effects on your ability to sleep. This is because evolution has hardwired our bodies to respond to the full spectrum of light provided by the sun, in various ways.
Here’s how it works. When light hits your eye, it’s detected by photosensitive cells in the retina called photoreceptors. These cells send messages to the hypothalamus, which regulates your body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, by releasing a hormone called melatonin. Scientists describe melatonin as the chemical that opens the “sleep gate”; simply put, it helps make your body feel sleepy.
The ups and downs of our circadian rhythm are based on the amount of blue and red light we receive. Blue wavelengths of light, such as those found in sunlight, are highly stimulating to photoreceptors; red wavelengths of light, not so much.
So the message that gets sent to the hypothalamus by blue-light stimulated photoreceptors is, “Wake up!” And it doesn’t matter what time of day or night this blue light appears: we’re going to wake up, because our brain is telling us to.
It’s worth noting that the hypothalamus also directly influences hormonal balance, metabolism, and immune function, meaning these integral functions are tied to, and influenced by, our circadian rhythm.
Our built-in sleep/wake cycle makes sense when you consider how humans lived millions of years ago. Long before light bulbs and iPhones the sun, in all its blue light glory, was our ancestors’ only light source. Once it set they spent evenings in relative darkness, effectively setting their internal clocks to “sleep” mode.
Today, modern life messes with our biological clocks. We spend a lot of time indoors, bathed in artificial light, night and day. AAs you can imagine, these habits adversely affect our quality of sleep.
Now, not everyone’s circadian rhythm is the same. If you’re a night owl, your circadian rhythm is slightly longer than 24 hours; if you’re an early bird, it’s slightly shorter. But whether you’re the last one to bed or the first to rise, exposure to light after dark suppresses the production of melatonin—which interferes with sleep.
During the day, natural sunlight is best. At night, it’s important to choose your light sources very carefully, especially if you suffer from any type of chronic sleep disorder.
Here’s how red light affects your ability to get enough sleep.
What Color Light Helps You Sleep?: Red Light
Unlike blue light, red light doesn’t act as a stimulant and helps you relax. Its low color temperature has a soothing effect on the body, and it’s the most conducive wavelength of light for a good night’s sleep. Using red light at night or in the evenings can help your body transition into its sleep cycle more naturally.
Red Light and Endurance Performance
Researchers have found promising evidence of red light’s benefits for sleep. One recent study looked at how red light affected the sleep quality and subsequent endurance performance of elite female basketball players. Twenty athletes were divided up and put into either a red light sleep group or a control group.
The red light participants received 30 minutes of exposure to a red light device every day, for two weeks. The control group received no red light treatment. The red light group showed marked improvement in sleep and serum melatonin levels—and they demonstrated increased endurance performance.
What this means for you: Red light can help you sleep better, while also delivering other physical benefits, such as stimulating energy production in cells, as found in this study. Another peer-reviewed study demonstrated that red light therapy has the potential to increase physical and mental energy and endurance.
Red Light and Sleep Inertia
Sleep inertia—that hard-to-shake groggy feeling upon waking up—is another common side effect of chronic sleep deprivation, and one that red light has been shown to alleviate, according to a study published by a sleep research journal.
In this experiment, participants received red light while they were sleeping and upon waking, via red-light masks and goggles. During the three weeks of treatment, most participants reported experiencing more restful sleep, and feeling more alert upon walking.They also performed better on cognitive tests.
What this means for you: If you are a shift worker, first responder, or medical professional and you are allowed short naps at work, exposure to red light can help you feel more alert and focused on the job.
Red Bulbs or Red Light Therapy for Sleep?
At this point, you’re probably wondering if it’s enough to change out your lightbulbs to red ones, or better to go with a high quality LED red light device.
The answer is: a bit of both. But it’s worth noting that most regular red bulbs on the market do not produce red light, they’re just tinted red. And while this does help mask blue light, it won’t have the same effect as bulbs that give off red light.
So certainly start off by creating one or two red lights to provide an ambient glow, and use blue-light blockers for any electric devices. Better yet, avoid sources of blue light altogether at bed time. But when you’re seriously ready to take your sleep up a notch, you can’t beat the results from dedicated red light equipment.
The most powerful results you’ll get come from using a high-power LED array that emits red light wavelengths exclusively. This type of light output comes from light therapy devices, and is a great way to heal your body, and improve sleep quality.
Red Light Sleep Therapy
Light therapy is fast becoming a popular and effective way to treat many health conditions, including skin problems, chronic pain, hair loss, and muscle recovery. But there’s a host of other benefits to enjoy from red light therapy—including better sleep. Red light therapy uses visible light between 620nm (nanometers) and 700nm—which is not the same as harmful ultraviolet light—to help regulate circadian rhythms.
Because of its shorter wavelength, red light penetrates the skin deeply, producing effects at the cellular level. It’s been shown to mitigate pain, slow inflammation, and promote healing in damaged cells and tissues.
What does this have to do with sleep? Your physical state affects your ability to fall and stay asleep.
Reducing pain and inflammation, and speeding up the healing process, can help promote good sleep—on a physical as well as emotional level. When you don’t hurt, sleep comes easier!
Bonus: Add NIR to Boost Recovery and Health
While red light provides a ton of health benefits, including better sleep and restful recovery, it’s made even better when used in combination with near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths. This range of light starts above 780nm and penetrates deeper into the body than any other visible spectrum.
When used with red-light therapy, your body gains a broader range of benefits, including better function of deep internal organs, such as your kidney or even your brain. There haven’t been as many studies explicitly linking NIR to sleep, but it certainly helps with recovery and overall health, which can make you more relaxed and rested.