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Light Therapy Could Help You Get a Better Night's Sleep

Updated November 27, 2019

Poor sleep is something that almost everyone has suffered through at least once in their life. Not sleeping properly can affect our bodies in a variety of negative ways: In fact, decreased sleep has been linked to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and impaired memory and mood. It’s such a widespread issue that it could be considered an epidemic, with approximately 1 in 4 Americans developing insomnia every year.

While pharmaceutical companies have raked in a fair bit of money with medical treatments to help alleviate insomnia, many people are beginning to search for natural options that come with fewer side effects.

Light Therapy Can Be an Alternative Sleep Aid

girl with light therapy device shining on her face

Light therapy, or phototherapy, has long been touted for its beneficial applications in treating sleep and mood disorders. After all, the theory takes its lead from the natural day/night cycle that helps keep our internal clocks in check.

In general, most animals determine when they should be resting by taking cues from the position of the sun. Diurnal animals, or animals that are active during the day, become less active at night when their brains are no longer receiving signals from the sun’s light.

In humans and other mammals, this is because our 24-hour internal clock, or circadian rhythm, is controlled by an area in our brain that is located just above an area where the nerves travel to the eyes, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The light signals to our brain when it is time to be active and when it is time to rest.

Scientists are still studying the exact reason light impacts our wake cycle, but some have theorized that it triggers the production of serotonin – our body’s “feel good” chemical – which prompts us to engage in activities.

Today, there are many different light variables that can affect and alter our circadian rhythm, with the biggest culprit being increased exposure to blue light. Screens from electronics like televisions, computers, tablets, and phones emit blue light, and when used before bed, they can throw off our natural sleep cycle.

The blue light from screens emulates natural light, tricking the brain into thinking that it’s still daytime and we should be awake.

When used appropriately, exposure to light can help treat sleep disorders. Due to triggering the release of serotonin, it’s also been studied as a way to treat depression, especially seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD mostly affects people who live in places that receive fewer hours of sunlight during certain times of the year. This is particularly relevant during winter when daylight hours are shortened and sunlight is often blocked by heavy cloud coverage or snow.

What Is Light Therapy?

Typically, light therapy involves sitting in front of a light-emitting box for a set duration of time. This exposure to light during certain times of the day helps the body to revert to a more natural day and night sleep cycle.

In addition to treating SAD, studies have shown that nurses working a night or evening shift scored better on the Insomnia Severity Index (ISI) and the Hospital Anxiety Depression Scale (HADS) after using light therapy.

It can also help frequent travelers treat jet lag and become accustomed to their new time zone faster.

Different Types of Light Therapy

Different types of light therapy are used to help treat specific issues and facilitate a healthy sleep cycle.

Dawn Simulators

A dawn simulator, for example, can help you gradually wake up in the morning. While this may sound like it wouldn’t have a direct impact on your sleep quality, waking up at the same time every day can help reinforce steady, healthy sleep patterns. This can make it easier to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.

This solution is particularly beneficial for people who use light-blocking shades or curtains to help them stay asleep at night. Being exposed to early morning light signals can help set the tone for the rest of your day (and night).

Light Boxes

girl sitting on a couch with a light box on

Light boxes are square spotlights that require you to sit in front of them for a set period of time. They emit a more intense level of full-spectrum fluorescent light, usually around 10,000 lux, than a regular lightbulb. The suggested usage time for light boxes varies between 30 to 60 minutes per day, at the same time each day.

Natural-Spectrum Lightbulbs

Natural-spectrum lightbulbs are lower intensity and can usually be used as desk or floor lamps, making them less cumbersome than light boxes. Because they can be used as your primary light source throughout the day, you don’t have to set aside a specific time to use them.

Bluewave Technology

Some light options utilize bluewave technology, which has proven to be superior to other lights in shifting circadian rhythms. When Harvard researchers compared the effects of 6.5 hours of blue light exposure to green light exposure, they found that blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much.

Melatonin is a natural chemical that helps us fall asleep and stay asleep. When production is limited during the day, not only are we more active and productive during those times, but our bodies then compensate by producing more at night. This helps us sleep at regular times and for an optimal duration.

Blue light should only be used during the day as it suppresses melatonin production.

The Pros and Cons of Using Light Therapy

Light therapy is an inexpensive, natural sleep aid and has significantly fewer potential side effects compared to prescription medicine. However, there are still some potential risks associated with using light therapy.

As light therapy often employs such a bright spectrum of light, it can cause eyestrain, headaches, nausea, irritability, agitation, mania, or hyperactivity. Some of these behavioral side effects can be associated with bipolar disorder. If you have bipolar disorder, talk to a doctor before trying light therapy.

It should also be noted that if you are sensitive to light or are taking medication that increases your sensitivity to sunlight, or if you have an eye condition that could make your eyes more susceptible to light damage, you should avoid using light therapy.

As with any medical treatment, you should consult your doctor or therapist to determine if light therapy is a good option for you. They will be able to tell you which times of the day and for how long you should expose yourself to the light for maximum benefits.

Buying a Light Therapy Machine

Before deciding on a light therapy treatment, you should look for options that filter out the most UV light to reduce the likelihood of skin and eye damage. If the product does not provide this information, it probably doesn’t filter out enough UV rays to make it safe for long-term use.

You should also consider the space and time you can dedicate to using your light therapy device. This will help you narrow down whether or not you should get a portable or full-sized unit.

Light boxes and lamps range in price from around $30 to upward of $60.

Your doctor will be an invaluable resource to help you navigate which brands and types are best for your personal needs.

If you suffer from poor sleep, inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, grogginess throughout the day, or low moods (especially during the winter seasons), it may be time to consider light therapy.