Red Light Therapy for Sleep
If you suffer from sleep disturbances, you’re certainly not alone. Sleep issues, particularly insomnia, have become quite prevalent in recent decades. In fact, according to the American Sleep Association, approximately 30% of Americans experience acute insomnia, and 10% suffer from chronic insomnia.
Modern treatments for insomnia are often no more than band-aid solutions, with some even bordering on unhealthy and dangerous (Ambien, for instance, has gained quite the reputation for its long list of bizarre side effects). That hasn’t stopped people from spending a significant amount of money seeking the elusive perfect night’s sleep. The global sleep economy, which includes everything from mattresses and pillows to sleeping pills and sleep apps, is valued at almost $500 billion.
The message there is that people want to sleep better, but they’re struggling to make it happen. Enter red light therapy. Researchers have been busy studying the vast (and growing!) list of benefits of red light therapy in the past couple of decades, and one of their discoveries is that it appears to be beneficial for a good night’s sleep. In this article, we’ll look at the importance of sleep, the various factors that can affect it, and how you can improve your sleep with red light therapy, safely and naturally.
WHY IS SLEEP IMPORTANT?
In the past few years, experts have begun highlighting sleep as an important factor in a number of health issues. In fact, chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to the following health problems:
Weight gain and obesity;
High blood pressure;
Mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder;
Poor work and academic performance;
Poor sleep is also correlated with a significant increase in traffic accidents and workplace injuries and has been shown to negatively affect the economy, with countries losing billions to absenteeism and lower productivity.
And yet, despite knowing all this, Americans are getting less sleep than ever. Adults generally need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep to maintain good health and functioning, and yet 35.5% of US adults are getting fewer than seven hours of sleep per night. Teens need even more sleep, generally between 9 and 9.5 hours, to help with their cognitive development. Despite this, close to 75% are clocking fewer than 8 hours per night.
So why aren’t we sleeping? Let’s take a look at what’s causing this nationwide sleep deficit.
WHY AREN’T ARE WE SLEEPING?
There are a million and one factors that can affect how well we sleep. Here are some of the most common.
Too much caffeine
Many people don’t realize that their afternoon pick-me-up could actually be the culprit, creating a vicious cycle of daytime drowsiness and nighttime wakefulness. Caffeine has a half-life of 3-5 hours, meaning that half of it may still be in your system several hours after consumption. In fact, caffeine consumed even 6 hours before bed can cause you to lose up to an hour of sleep.
Not enough exercise
Studies have shown that those who get less exercise experience more difficulty falling and staying asleep, have poorer quality sleep overall, and are more likely to sleep fewer hours. While experts aren’t exactly sure how sleep and exercise are linked, it appears that exercise increases the amount of slow-wave (or deep) sleep you get.
Exercise also releases endorphins, which can boost your mood and consequently affect your sleep. Finally, exercise can indirectly affect sleep by helping you maintain a healthy weight, as excess weight is associated with sleep apnea, insomnia, and poor quality sleep.
Stress causes your body to release cortisol and adrenaline, both known as stress hormones. In situations of short-term stress, this is a good thing, as it triggers your body’s fight-or-flight response, allowing you to deal with the situation in question. When you’re dealing with high-stress situations all day, it may take longer for your brain to move to the relaxed state needed for sleep.
People who experience high stress are also more likely to feel anxious at night, often lying awake with a racing mind that is itching to solve their problems. And, in a twist of irony, sleep deprivation can be a source of stress in and of itself, further exacerbating insomnia (who hasn’t looked at the clock in the middle of the night and calculated exactly how many minutes of sleep they’ll get if only they would fall asleep right now?).
Poor sleep hygiene
Sleep hygiene refers to the collection of habits as well as the bedroom environment necessary for a good night’s sleep. Examples of poor sleep hygiene include going to bed too late, scrolling on your phone or watching TV in bed, falling asleep on the couch, even sleeping in on weekends. Good sleep hygiene can include going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, avoiding naps, sleeping in a dark, quiet room that is maintained at a comfortable temperature, and of course, getting adequate exercise and limiting your caffeine intake.
HOW DOES LIGHT AFFECT SLEEP?
We all have a 24-hour internal clock that determines our sleep-wake cycle. Called the circadian rhythm, it’s responsible for many biological responses, including how many hours of sleep we need and when in the evening we start to feel sleepy. While humans in general are diurnal creatures, there are some differences between individuals. Night owls, for instance, have a circadian rhythm that runs slightly slower than 24 hours; the opposite is true for early birds. A person’s internal clock tends to change over their lifetime as well. Teens, for example, tend to go to bed later and sleep longer. By contrast, as we approach old age, our circadian rhythms shift to include earlier mornings and fewer hours of sleep overall.
Your circadian rhythm is controlled by the pineal gland, a small gland located deep in the center of your brain. It’s sometimes referred to as the third eye, due in part to its connection to light. One of its main roles is the secretion of melatonin, the hormone that causes sleepiness. This function is dictated by, you guessed it, light!
During the day, sunlight is absorbed by photoreceptors located in the retina of the eye. These photoreceptors then send messages to the pineal gland, suppressing melatonin secretion. Once the sun goes down, melatonin secretion increases as your body prepare for sleep – at least that’s how it’s designed to work. In modern times it’s a tad more complicated.
Blue light and sleep
If you look at the entire history of humanity, it’s only very recently that we’ve had ready access to artificial light (roughly the last 150 years out of 300,000). Before electricity, the sun setting was our body’s cue to start producing melatonin. Plus, the dimmer, warmer glow of sunset and firelight was conducive to winding down and preparing for sleep. Now, we tend to surround ourselves with electrical light right up until bedtime, and often even beyond that.
Studies have shown that even exposure to bright room light before bedtime can delay melatonin onset and duration. These effects can be mitigated, however, by using dimmer switches, low-wattage table lamps – or light in the red spectrum, as we’ll see. The real problem is with our devices: positioned mere inches from our eyes at all hours of the day and night, our smartphones, tablets, and laptops seem to be throwing our pineal glands into confusion and disrupting our circadian rhythm.
Screens emit light in the blue range, which mimics daylight, suppressing melatonin secretion. It’s also been shown to increase cortisol levels. The negative effects of blue light exposure at night are certainly no secret: experts have been warning us against using our devices before bed for years, and yet scrolling before bed or even in bed is at an all-time high in both teens and adults.
It’s no wonder an increasing number of people have been suffering from insomnia and sleep deprivation. After all, technology is advancing rapidly and exponentially, while evolution occurs at a snail’s pace. Recent research has even found that humans tend to sleep less in the days preceding the full moon, likely a relic of a time when we needed to take advantage of this natural source of light.
So the question remains: if blue light hinders our ability to sleep, can red light strengthen it?
Red light and sleep
One of the ways to combat the melatonin-suppressing and cortisol-increasing effects of artificial light, as we’ve briefly mentioned, is to use dimmer lighting in warmer tones such as orange or red, as they’re less likely to disrupt your circadian clock. It’s important to note that most colored light bulbs are simply coated in translucent paint or film, so some blue light will still penetrate. In order to avoid blue light altogether, you’ll want to opt for red LEDs, which emit light at a single specific wavelength (as opposed to the white light of incandescents or fluorescents, which contain every color). For a more detailed overview of red light sources and their differences, hop on over to this blog post.
So, if a regular red light bulb is effective at mitigating the effects of blue light, why invest in red light therapy for sleep? Are there added benefits to this therapeutic treatment that can help you achieve that mythical good night’s sleep? In a word, yes! Here’s how.
GET BETTER SLEEP WITH RED LIGHT THERAPY – NATURALLY
Red light therapy has a vast array of benefits covering a wide range of issues, including:
Wound and scar healing;
Pain and inflammation;
Arthritis-related joint pain and stiffness;
Mental health and depression;
Weight loss and body contouring;
Muscle growth, athletic performance, and recovery;
Hormone health and sex drive;
While it might seem strange that one treatment can have so many potential benefits, the reason is quite simple: red light therapy draws upon your own body’s capabilities for healing and performance.
Concentrated beams of red and near-infrared light penetrate the skin to target the mitochondria of the cell, allowing them to produce energy more efficiently. This increased energy allows the body’s tissues and organs to function more optimally in a variety of ways*, including some that can improve sleep.
*Read more about how red light therapy works here.
Red light therapy boosts melatonin
One 2012 study evaluated the effects of red light therapy on a group of female basketball players. Subjects in the treatment group were administered 30 minutes of red light therapy every night for 14 days compared to the placebo group, which received no treatment. Those in the treatment group saw a significant increase in sleep quality and serum melatonin levels.
Another 2018 study on the effectiveness of red light therapy versus botulinum toxin A on migraines noted a reduction in sleep disturbance in participants receiving the red light therapy treatment.
Red light therapy reduces sleep inertia
Sleep inertia refers to a deficiency in performance and alertness following waking (basically grogginess). It can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. A 2019 study evaluated cognitive performance in 30 subjects following red light therapy exposure either during 90-minute sleep periods or upon waking from them. Participants not only saw a reduction in subjective sleepiness, but they also performed better on a variety of tasks as well.
As the researchers noted, this could have major implications for overnight shift workers who have the opportunity to nap during their shift and for whom optimal job performance is crucial, such as first responders and medical residents.
This study shows potential benefits for insomnia sufferers as well. As any sleep expert will tell you, one of the key elements of proper sleep hygiene is waking up at the same time every day. This can be incredibly difficult for those who’ve spent the night tossing and turning, leading sufferers to hit the snooze button and to sleep in at every opportunity. Using red light therapy upon waking may allow poor sleepers to resist the urge to go back to bed, helping them to retrain their circadian clock.
Red light therapy gives your workouts a boost
We’ve already established that exercise is an important contributing factor to getting a good night’s sleep. But did you know that red light therapy can help improve athletic performance? Dozens of studies on both athletes and non-athletes have shown red light therapy to be effective in increasing muscle fatigue resistance and elapsed time before exhaustion in strength training, as well as the time limit of exercise and distance covered in cardiovascular exercise tests. Fatigue response was also decreased after red light therapy treatment, as was recovery time.
Those experiencing insomnia know all too well how difficult working out can be when you’re exhausted. However, skipping workouts only serves to exacerbate the problem. Red light therapy’s ability to improve performance means that you might be able to muster a few more reps or run that extra block or two, setting you up for better Z’s.
Red light therapy reduces pain and inflammation
Many people’s sleep issues are not due to insomnia but rather to pain or discomfort that makes sleeping difficult. Chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and arthritis are three of the most common conditions that keep sufferers from getting proper sleep. And, in a cruel twist, sleep deprivation often worsens pain symptoms, creating a vicious cycle that’s difficult to break out of.
Red light therapy has been clinically proven to reduce pain and accelerate healing for a number of issues and conditions. This article not only takes an in-depth look at the clinically proven benefits of the treatment for a variety of pain conditions, but it also provides a detailed explanation of the mechanisms of red light therapy for pain.
Rouge red light therapy devices are FDA-registered as Class-II medical devices specifically for the relief of muscle spasms and minor muscle and joint aches, as well as for the treatment of pain and stiffness associated with arthritis.
Red light therapy is a soothing signal that bedtime is approaching
One important step in the quest for good sleep is establishing a consistent bedtime routine. The most successful of these involve a series of behavioral and environmental cues that let the brain and the body know that it’s time to wind down. It doesn’t take much for some; the simple act of brushing their teeth can flip a switch that sends them off to dreamland. For others for whom sleep is evasive, it requires a bit more of a performance: putting on pajamas at a specific time, making a cup of tea, putting down the phone and picking up a book, or perhaps listening to soothing music.
Red light therapy can serve as both ambient lights in the lead-up to bedtime, both stopping the suppression of melatonin secretion caused by regular room light, and by providing a visual cue that it’s time to relax and put the day behind us.
Try keeping your device on as ambient light for half an hour to an hour before bed while reading a book or listening to a soothing podcast or playlist. Then, right before hitting the sheets, sit down for a 10-20 minute session to really lock in the power of red light for sleep. If you don’t see results right away, keep at: it can take up to a few weeks to see improvements.
Red light therapy is completely safe to use every day
Many people rely on sleep aids to manage their insomnia. While these may have positive effects in the short term, most are habituating (meaning over time a greater dose is needed to achieve the same effect) and can cause psychological or physical dependence. And, as mentioned above, many sleeping pills have unpleasant – and in some cases, harmful – side effects. These can include daytime drowsiness, brain fog, changes in appetite, dry mouth, diarrhea or constipation, dizziness, and many more.
Red light therapy, on the other hand, has been consistently shown to have virtually no risks, even when used every day, and side effects are uncommon, mild, and temporary. In fact, the side effect you’re most likely to see is unexpected improvements in other areas (in this interview, poker star and fitness maven Leo Margets discusses the surprise benefits she discovered when using red light therapy, including healthier hair and a clearer mind).