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So many of us are struggling to get enough sleep—or enough calm to actually fall asleep. To help quiet the mind and doze off, some people are turning on red lights at night as a helpful aid that could make snooze time longer. But what is red light, exactly, and can it really make it easier to fall asleep at night?
What is red light therapy?
Red-light therapy is composed of light with a long wavelength of around 670 nm. Blue light, the type that comes from electronic devices, has shorter wavelengths (450 and 495 nm). Blue light has been implicated in keeping us awake at night—that’s why experts recommend turning off your devices well before bedtime. But red light may have the opposite effect and aid in creating drowsiness. It might work in conjunction with melatonin, known as the “sleep hormone,” which helps regulate sleep and circadian rhythms.
“There are some preliminary studies suggesting that red light devices helped in improvement in sleep,” says Sunitha D. Posina MD, board-certified internist and locum hospitalist in New York.
A study in the Journal of Athletic Training found that 30 minutes of red-light exposure improved sleep and melatonin levels.
Some other research suggests that red light therapy at night may also help you wake up more alert and ready for the day. A study in the Journal of Nature and Science of Sleep found that red lights prevented “sleep inertia.” That’s the feeling of grogginess some people experience when they first wake up after sleeping. “Researchers found that sleep inertia was reduced in patients exposed to red-light through closed eyelids—as well as to open eyes upon awakening while wearing red light goggles,” says MH advisor Robert Glatter, MD, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwell Health and attending emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital. But the study was small—only 30 people—making it difficult to draw any solid conclusions.
Still, there may be potential for red light to be helpful. Reducing this transitional state and waking up ready to start your day by using red lights may be useful for people in certain professions such as first responders, medical residents, and those who work extended hours, overnight shifts, and even just have busy schedules in general.
Overall, it’s a little too soon to tell what the benefits of red light are, if any. “The studies that are available have small sample sizes with no specific focus on treating sleep disorders. As a result, we still have a lot to learn about exactly how red light therapy affects people with different sleep cycle abnormalities,” says Dr. Glatter.
If you want to try red light, anyway
There are red lights on the market, and if you want to try them before all the research is in, “the best way would be to use a high-quality red LED light bulb in your room for 15 to 20 minutes consistently before going to bed daily,” says Dr. Posina.
And if getting better sleep and getting to sleep faster is your goal, you should still also make some other adjustments to your evening and bedtime routine. These include not eating too close to bedtime, exercising early in the morning, and exposing yourself to sunlight during the first part of the day. And avoid stimulants such as coffee, alcohol, and strenuous physical activity close to bedtime too, and your bedroom at around 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Of course, instead of flooding yourself with red light to sleep better, you might just want to cut back on the amount of blue you get. Power down your screens about two hours before bedtime and do something else relaxing before you hit the sheets.
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