How Red Light Therapy Can Help You Sleep Better

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Red Light Therapy for Sleep

Indoor lifestyles are common in today’s world, subjecting people to excessive artificial fluorescent and blue light and depriving them of natural sunlight. Overexposure to certain forms of artificial light can negatively impact your natural biological rhythms. Sleep patterns, a key factor in overall wellness, suffer as a result.

Red light therapy promotes relaxation, helps to counteract the effects of blue light exposure, improves sleep quality, and boosts your overall well-being.

Sleep Disorders and Their Adverse Health Effects

The term “sleep disorder” refers to any condition that affects the quality, timing, or duration of sleep, and negatively impacts your ability to function while you are awake.

Sleep disorders are generally distinguished by one of four characteristics:

  • trouble falling or remaining asleep
  • difficulty staying awake during the day
  • circadian rhythm disturbances
  • unusual behaviors that disrupt sleep

What Is a Circadian Rhythm?

Your circadian rhythm [1] [2] is an instinctive process that regulates your “sleep–wake cycle” and repeats on each rotation of the Earth roughly every 24 hours. Your brain houses an internal biological clock that regulates the timing of functions such as appetite, hormone release, and metabolism. Your body’s desire to sleep or wake in certain patterns is one of the main circadian system functions.

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Most healthy adults require about seven to nine hours of sleep per night; however, it is difficult to define “normal sleep” [2] because every individual has a unique circadian rhythm. Some people feel more alert in the morning while others feel more productive in the evening. Most of us are well aware of whether we are a “morning person” or a “night owl”.

While your circadian rhythm cycles approximately every 24 hours, it might not be exactly every 24 hours. Most people have a cycle time that is slightly more or less than the actual length of the earth’s rotation. The length of your circadian cycle plays a part in determining exactly how much sleep you need as an individual, and whether or not you prefer to be an early riser.

Regardless of your exact circadian cycle timing, if your circadian rhythm is disturbed, the quality of your sleep and your overall health are affected.

A disruption to your natural circadian rhythm can cause [3]:

  • sleep disorders
  • depression (Read about red light therapy for depression)
  • anxiety
  • mood swings and other mood disorders
  • a general feeling of lethargy or malaise

Factors that can throw your circadian rhythm out of sync include [4]:

  • artificial light exposure (especially blue light and fluorescent light)
  • caffeine
  • stress and anxiety
  • constant temperature (cooling the body slightly promotes sleep)
  • alarms (a consistent sleep schedule with natural waking is healthier than waking to an alarm)

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Common Sleep Disorders

Most of us have experienced some sort of sleeping problem at one time or another. The most prevalent types of sleep disorders [5] [6] [7] are:

  • Insomnia — People with insomnia experience frequent and recurring difficulty with either falling or remaining asleep.
  • Sleep Apnea — A breathing disorder that occurs due to an upper-airway blockage, sleep apnea causes you to wake from sleep choking or gasping for air. It is frequently caused by heavy snoring or enlarged adenoids.
  • Narcolepsy — If you have narcolepsy, you might randomly fall asleep during the day. This disorder is characterized by an overwhelming feeling of tiredness even if you had adequate sleep the night before.
  • Restless Leg Syndrome (RSL) — RSL is characterized by idiopathic (of unknown cause) throbbing, pain, and itching in the legs, causing the urge to thrash and move your legs during sleep, thus waking you up.
  • Shift Work Disorder — If you work nights rather than days or are required to work very early or late hours, your circadian rhythm is disturbed because you cannot maintain a sleep schedule consistent with your natural biological needs.
  • Parasomnias — More common in children than adults, parasomnias are unusual behaviors that disrupt sleep. Examples include night terrors and sleepwalking.

Red light therapy can provide relief from any of these common sleep disorders.

Negative Health Impacts of Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders are linked to all of the following adverse health conditions [5] [8]:

  • hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • diabetes
  • obesity and weight gain (which red light therapy can help alleviate)
  • depression
  • fatigue
  • anxiety
  • stroke
  • cognitive impairment
  • cardiac arrest (heart attack)

Red light therapy can significantly reduce your risk of experiencing any of these adverse, dangerous health conditions.

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How Does Light Exposure Affect Sleep Patterns?

Light plays a key role in your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and maintain a consistent and healthy sleep routine. Various wavelengths of light impact your body’s ability to sleep in different ways. Your body is designed to respond to the full electromagnetic spectrum of light, with reactions corresponding to wavelength.

Light exposure stimulates your hypothalamus (a gland that directly affects hormonal balance and is tied closely to your circadian rhythm). Your hypothalamus is responsible for producing and releasing melatonin, a hormone that prompts your body to enter “sleep mode”.

Different wavelengths of light either trigger or suppress the level of melatonin produced by your hypothalamus. Shorter wavelengths (such as those of blue light) stimulate your brain to produce less, while longer wavelengths (such as red) promote greater melatonin production.

Blue Light Exposure Disrupts Sleep Quality [9] [10]

Blue light is shorter in wavelength than red light and acts as a stimulant to your brain rather than a calming agent. Due to the increased usage of cell phones, computers, television, and other electronics, blue light exposure has grown exponentially in recent years.

Blue light energizes your brain and puts you into “wake-up” mode. It enhances your attention span and helps you focus, so it can be beneficial during the day when you need to remain alert. Blue light before bed, however, signals your brain to stay awake when it should be winding down.

Your natural circadian rhythm is thrown off balance by blue light exposure. Your hypothalamus produces less melatonin, thus interrupting your sleep patterns and causing physical distress.


If you cannot limit “screen time” during the three hours before you go to bed, consider wearing blue-blocking glasses or using an app that filters blue light from your electronic devices. Fluorescent light and halogen bulbs have similar effects on your body and should also be avoided in the hours before bedtime.

An overabundance of blue and fluorescent light is unnatural to the human body and can cause you to feel lethargic and have a general sense of unwellness or malaise, in addition to causing sleeping problems. Long-term vision problems can also be an eventual side effect of extreme blue light exposure.

Red Light Therapy Promotes Relaxation and Helps You Sleep Better

Unlike blue light exposure, red light therapy has a soothing effect on your body and mind. It acts as a calming agent rather than a stimulant for your brain. Your hypothalamus is not suppressed from producing melatonin, allowing your brain to reach the hormonal balance it needs for healthy, undisturbed sleep. Your circadian rhythm is enhanced by red light, not disrupted.

Red light is an excellent substitute for natural light and can ease the symptoms of sunlight deficiency as well as help to counteract the effects of too much blue or fluorescent light exposure.

The longer wavelengths of red light penetrate your body to its cellular level and reduce inflammation, improve circulation, promote tissue healing, provide pain relief, and strengthen your body’s natural healing abilities. This, in turn, elevates the quality of your sleep. Better overall wellness and less pain increase your potential to experience peaceful, uninterrupted sleep.

Does Clinical Research Support the Effectiveness of Red Light Therapy For Better Sleep?

Yes. Studies prove the efficacy of red light therapy for sleep improvement. Examples include:

  • In one study [11], participants received red light therapy for three weeks, both during periods of sleep and upon waking. Most participants reported feeling more rested and feeling more alert upon waking. They also performed better on cognitive tests than they had before red light therapy. This study proved that sleep inertia (that groggy feeling that makes it difficult to wake up, another side effect of frequent sleep deprivation) can be relieved through red light therapy.
  • In another study [12], a team of athletes was divided into two groups. One group received daily red light therapy and the other did not. After two weeks, the red light therapy group exhibited significant improvement in melatonin production, increased athletic endurance, and reported feeling more well-rested and refreshed. The group receiving no red light therapy experienced no change in performance or sleep quality.

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Which Type of Red Light Works Best for Improving Sleep Quality?

A combination of ambient, red LED and near-infrared (NIR light) comprises a great recipe for sleep quality maximization.

  • Ambient Red Light — The word “ambient” means surrounding. Ambient red light is diffused uniformly throughout an environment. Light rays travel in random directions instead of one straight line. Ambient light bathes an area in light rather than shining directly onto objects in its path, as a flashlight would.
  • Red LED Light — Short red LED light wavelengths range from about 630 to 700 nanometers (nm). These visible wavelengths are typical in almost all red light therapy devices.
  • Near-Infrared (NIR) Light — With longer red wavelengths ranging from approximately 700 to 900 nm, NIR light penetrates your body even more deeply than short red waves. Your body receives a deeper level of therapeutic benefit. Many devices now offer a combination of wavelength options including both short red and NIR.

Ambient red light helps you to balance your indoor light usage. It does not, however, penetrate or activate your body at its cellular level as red light therapy does. It promotes general wellness and biorhythmic patterns, but it does not have the deep healing powers of red light therapy.

Used conjunctively, ambient red light, red LED light, and NIR light pave the road to your optimal sleep pattern.

What Kinds of Red Light Therapy Devices Are Best for Improving Sleep Quality?

For ambient red light, many devices such as nightlights, reading lamps, strip lights, and even light bulbs for use in regular household lamps are available. Be aware that the glass of these household-use light bulbs is usually just tinted red. They are typically incandescent bulbs that do not emit true red light waves. While a red-tinted incandescent bulb might block some of the blue light that would radiate from a regular white incandescent bulb, it will not provide any benefits of actual red light. If purchasing a “red” light bulb, make sure it is an actual red LED bulb.

Some newer red light therapy panels offer an “ambient mode” option. Since red light therapy machines use direct light instead of ambient light, it is important to aim the device away from yourself to create ambient light. Face the device toward a wall so the light is not focused on you. The wall acts as a diffuser when the light bounces off of it, creating an ambient light. Red light therapy panels draw more power than devices intended solely for ambient light use, so be aware that this may be more costly.

Many red light therapy devices today offer multiple wavelength options including both short red and NIR light. For optimal sleep improvement capability, this type of device is your best bet. Combining red LED and NIR therapy with red ambient light will optimize both relaxation and healing so you can experience the best sleep possible and wake up feeling well-rested every day.

Red light therapy will restore and rejuvenate your mind and body and ensure you a good night’s sleep every night, all in the comfort of your own home.


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