Red light therapy – an effective option for insomnia

 Light is beneficial for better sleep but you need the right type of light!


Sleep is one of those things that is taken for granted until that night when sheep mathematics with a side of warm milk or chamomile tea comes along. Long sleepless nights are frustrating! Tossing and turning, thinking about getting through that busy day tomorrow on very little sleep. Sleep is important – not just to prevent tiredness. It is important for overall health, cognition, productivity, wellbeing, physical and mental performance [4]! It has been shown that without sleep the brain is affected negatively. Multiple studies have shown that lack of sleep can interfere with a range of biological processes such as learning, memory and the ability to fight diseases [1]. Sleep also has a direct affect on mental health and emotional stability [1]. 

If sleep is so important then it must be prioritised! To do this a method called sleep hygiene can be used. This doesn't mean having a bath or shower before bed! Sleep hygiene is the term for having good sleeping habits [6]. 

  1. Have a regular bedtime and rising time
  2. Only go to bed when tired instead of laying there tossing and turning
  3. If sleep hasn't come within 20-30 minutes, get up and do something relaxing or boring in low light.
  4. Avoid caffeine containing drinks and foods, especially 4-6 hours before bed
  5. Avoid alcohol 4-6 hours before bed – some people have a 'nightcap' to help them sleep. It may help get to sleep but in the long term it will not help.
  6. Only use the bed for sleep or for sex – when used to watching tv, eating or work for example, the sleep association can be lost.
  7. Avoid naps during the day
  8. Have a sleep ritual – stretching, relaxation techniques, a calming herbal tea before bed.
  9. Have a shower or bath in the 1-2 hours before bed
  10. Don't look at the clock during the nightmares
  11. Keep a sleep diary – make notes about when sleep is hard to come by and watch for the patterns
  12. Get some exercise during the day but not in the 4-6 hours before bed
  13. Eat a healthy diet – consider a small light snack if hunger is a problem
  14. Make sure the bedroom is comfortable and address anything which causes discomfort
  15. Keep the same routine even after a bad night's sleep – changing the routine can reinforce insomnia. 
  16. Maximise light exposure during the day and minimise light exposure during the night 

The tips used for sleep hygiene are really about trying to maximise the efficiency of the body clock. The term body clock is pretty common but what does it mean? The more correct name for this term is circadian rhythm. This rhythm occurs due to the light and dark changes that occur over the 24 hour day/night cycle [4]. The circadian rhythm has the effect of helping to control the amount of melatonin that the body produces. Melatonin is the sleep hormone. When circadian rhythm disorders occur it results in environmental or lifestyle-caused sleep disorders. More examples of these disorders can be from jet lag, shift work, working or studying late, TV and the Internet.

Some people are naturally more resistant to changes of light than others are and their bodies may not always respond to artificial lights. Bright light at night can really put the circadian rhythm out of whack when accustomed to staying up late for work or playing games. Avoid as much artificial light as possible in the work space or the home, especially at night, to make sure that light doesn’t affect your sleep. People who live in cities can find the light is too bright which can affect their sleep. Blockout blinds can be considered to help prevent it causing insomnia or less restful sleep. In the bedroom, the best way to get to sleep is with the lights off. For some people who are sensitive, even the standby light or the display on an alarm clock can interfere with sleep. These should be covered or removed from the bedroom. 

Blue light is one reason why bright light is an issue for sleep. It is stimulating and it causes a message to the brain to wake up [8]. This can be a benefit during the day when work needs to be done or when it is time to wake in the morning. Unfortunately this effect works even at night time. Long before light bulbs, televisions and mobile phones, the sun, which contains blue light, was the only major light source. Once the sun set and it became dark, the internal clocks were set to “sleep” mode. Humans now spend a lot of time indoors, exposed to artificial light, night and day.  Blue light is so stimulating that it can shift circadian rhythms [8]. Most phones have settings where blue light can be minimised by switching the screen to a more orange/yellow colour. For phones without this setting, simple apps can be downloaded. There are also versions for computers and televisions. 

Insomnia treatment options usually come in the form of synthetic drugs. Unfortunately, synthetic drugs are known to induce side effects. Natural herbal supplements are alternatives that have ingredients that are safe, have no adverse effects but they do not work for everyone.

Can infrared and red light therapy promote better sleep?

Unlike blue light, red light doesn’t act as a stimulant. Its low colour temperature has a soothing effect on the body. Using red light at night or in the evenings can help the transition into a sleep cycle more naturally. Since this technology has been shown to aid in relaxation, it can help relax the body and prepare for a good night’s sleep. It is not as simple as switching normal light bulbs to red ones. Red light bulbs are just normal light bulbs that have been tinted red. They will help to mask some of the blue light but it doesn't offer the benefit for sleep. Infrared and red light devices are required to receive the sleep inducing benefits from light.

Using a red light device can actually help induce such good sleep that it will increase performance! Elite basketball players used red light therapy for two weeks. At the end of that time it was shown that they experienced a positive change in their melatonin level, better performance and a better sleep [2].

Studies have shown that red light induces potent non-rapid eye movement sleep and rapid eye movement sleep. Using red light as healthy night illumination is a benefit for better sleep [3]. Researchers in the growing field of light therapy believe that the effect of red light on melatonin production is one of the keys to why it is so effective [5]. 

Sleep inertia is the grogginess that is experienced from chronic sleep deprivation. Red light has been shown to alleviate it, according to a study published by a sleep research journal [7]. These people experienced better sleep and felt more alert when they woke up. As a confirmation of the benefits they also performed better on cognitive tests. This is especially beneficial for shift workers, emergency services and medical professionals who may have unusual shifts. 

The occasional or regular bout of insomnia is pretty likely in these modern times. Following good sleep hygiene will be beneficial. Red light therapy is another effective tool that can be included in this sleep hygiene to hopefully get that restful night sleep that one thought could only be dreamt about! 


[1] Vicki Contie, Lack of Sleep Disrupts Brain’s Emotional Controls, National Institutes of Health, US Department of Health & Human Services, November, 2007, https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/lack-sleep-disrupts-brains-emotional-controls

[2] Zhao J., Tian Y., Nie J., Xu J., Liu D., Red light and the sleep quality and endurance performance of Chinese female basketball players, Journal of Athletic Training, November, 2012, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23182016/

[3] Zhang Z., Wang H.J., Wang D.R. et al, Red light at intensities above 10 lx alters sleep–wake behavior in mice, Journal of Light Science Application, September, 2017, https://www.nature.com/articles/lsa2016231?utm_medium=affiliate&utm_source=commission_junction&utm_campaign=3_nsn6445_deeplink_PID100086039&utm_content=deeplink

[4] National Institute of General Medical Sciences, Circadian Rhythms, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, September, 2021, https://nigms.nih.gov/education/fact-sheets/Pages/Circadian-Rhythms.aspx

[5] Yeager, Ronnie & Oleske, Deanna & Sanders, Ruth & Watkins, John & Eells, Janis & Henshel, Diane, Melatonin as a principal component of red light therapy, Journal of Medical hypotheses, February, 2007,


[6] Centre for Clinical Interventions, Sleep hygiene, Government of Western Australia, October, 2020, https://cci.health.wa.gov.au/~/media/CCI/Mental%20Health%20Professionals/Sleep/Sleep%20-%20Information%20Sheets/Sleep%20Information%20Sheet%20-%2004%20-%20Sleep%20Hygiene.pdf

[7] Figueiro M.G., Sahin L., Roohan C., Kalsher M., Plitnick B., Rea M.S., Effects of red light on sleep inertia, Nature and Science of Sleep journal, May, 2019, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31118850/

[8] Guarana C.L., Barnes C.M., Ong W.J., The effects of blue-light filtration on sleep and work outcomes, Journal of Applied Psychology, May, 2021, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32658494/

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