Blue light is like a vampire, fine during the day, dangerous when the sun sets.
The studies are undeniable. Blue wavelength light, the kind emitted by computers, TVs, cell phones, and curly compact fluorescent lights, takes a big bite out of our ability to sleep. Exposure to blue light in the evening hours plays havoc on our circadian rhythm function (our body clock), suppressing melatonin levels, tricking our brains into thinking, “Hey it’s not really time to go to sleep yet.”
“Blue light from electronics causes people sleep difficulties even though they might not realize it,” says Dr. Catherine Darley of The Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine.
Dr. Darley insists that people who think they aren’t affected by staying up late at the computer or watching TV may be kidding themselves.
“These people may be chronically sleep deprived, which increases their sleep drive and therefore helps them fall asleep easily,” Dr. Darley said.
And it’s not just sleep deprivation. Skimping on sleep over time can contribute to chronic health problems, from obesity and diabetes to immune problems and an increased risk for cancer. Lack of sleep also increases your odds of occupational errors and accidents.
It’s All About Melatonin
About one or two hours before your normal bedtime, a small gland in your brain, the pineal gland, begins to produce the hormone melatonin. This is what makes us sleepy. But melatonin is only adequately produced as our day winds down, and light turns to dark. The problem is that the blue light from electronics mimics natural light, which inhibits melatonin production.
This wasn’t an issue 100 years ago when people averaged 10 hours of sleep, rising with sunrise and “hitting the hay” shortly after sunset. In our electronic age, people are averaging only seven hours of sleep as the evil grins of glowing screens keep us up longer by blocking the flow of melatonin.
Post-its To the Rescue – Or Not
A couple of years ago, Jaret Jansen, a research assistant at Arizona State University, would have been happy with seven hours of sleep. He was averaging about five hours due to blue light bombardment.
“Blue light is one of the strongest forms of light visible to the naked eye,” Jansen said. “In fact it’s strong enough to penetrate our eye lids.”
The more Jansen researched blue light, the more he realized this was probably a key factor to his sleeplessness. To remedy this situation, he began to cover all the electronic devices in his bedroom with Post-it notes, every night.
“This worked for a little while,” Jansen said. “But I found I was going through Post-it notes like crazy.”
After a month, he stopped with the Post-it notes and went for a more permanent solution: He moved all electronics out of his room except for his laptop, which he replaced with a model that emits a red status light instead of a blue one.
“The Army requires a red lens on its flashlights,” Jansen said, “because red is the least likely color to wake an enemy combatant.” Jansen serves in the Arizona National Guard.
Also, red and yellow light will not suppress melatonin production.
Jansen said moving electronics out of his bedroom was “kind of a hassle,” but worth it.“I’m sleeping quite well now. I have enough energy throughout the day and that allowed me to quit coffee, which has improved my sleep even more.”
Only A Monster At Night
Conversely, we need exposure to blue wavelengths found in sunlight. Lack of natural blue light during daylight hours also has a negative impact on our ability to sleep. Light intensity during the day is important because it serves as the major synchronizer of our master body clock, which is composed of a group of brain cells called the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN). Essentially, blue light during the day aligns our circadian rhythms. This contrast in brightness sets up the release of the melatonin hormone at night.
“We know that blue light in the a.m. is positively stimulating for alertness, focus, and energy,” said Dr. James Rouse, a naturopathic physician and Chinese herbalist.
Light intensity is measured in lux units, and on any given day, the outdoor lux units will be around 100,000 at noon. Indoors, the typical average is somewhere between 100 to 2,000 lux units.
To assist your circadian system in “resetting” itself, researchers recommend getting at least 10 to 15 minutes of light first thing in the morning to send a message to your internal clock that day has arrived. From around noon to midafternoon, try for another dose of bright sunlight for a minimum of 30 minutes.
If you absolutely can’t go outside during the day, there’s a gadget called a blue-light emitter that’s a small light therapy device you can keep on your desk. This is the same device used to treat sufferers of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Using a blue-light emitter twice a day for about 15 minutes can help anchor your circadian rhythm.
Combating The Blue Light Demon After Sunset
You can either spend a lot of time and expense covering all your LED’s with Post-its, or try these four doctor-recommended techniques for cutting down on blue light exposure in order to sleep better:
1. Blue Light Blocking Glasses – There are many different brands available, ranging in price from $10 to $150. The idea behind these amber-lensed glasses called Swannies is you wear them a couple of hours before going to bed to calm your brain from blue light stimulation.
“Swannies glasses are predominantly pre-sleep glasses to be worn 90 minutes before sleep. The amber lenses block the blue light wavelength responsible for the disruption of melatonin production,” explains founder James Swanwick, an Australian-American entrepreneur and host of The James Swanwick Show podcast. “This means your body can naturally produce melatonin allowing you to fall asleep easier and spend more time in the deep, restorative, REM sleep during the night. People report waking up feeling more refreshed and rejuvenated and reported better concentration and focus throughout the day.”
Blue light blocking glasses can help, confirms behavioral sleep expert, Dr. Richard Shane.
One famous study of 20 adults who wore either blue-light blocking or ultraviolet-light blocking glasses for three hours before sleep found that both sleep quality and mood improved among those in the group who wore blue-light blocking glasses, compared to the ultraviolet-light blocking group.
Sleep scientists recommend glasses that block out more than 90 percent of the blue light wavelength. Dr. Shane recommends BluGard glasses because they block out 100 percent of the blue light frequencies.
“In addition to blocking the light that interferes with the brain’s production of melatonin, these glasses also reduce the buzz that often comes from staring at a bright computer screen,” Dr. Shane said.
2. Blue Light Diminishing Applications – These are programs that automatically dim LED screens in the evening. Most are time sensitive, so the screens become darker the closer to your personal bedtime. These applications are often free and available for computers, cell phones and TVs.
3. Avoiding Electronics/Switching Out Lights – It’s difficult to stop using electronics cold turkey in the evenings. Normally this is the time people return from work and like to unwind by watching TV, talking on their cells, or interacting at their computers. But try to allow at least one hour between the time you go to bed and the time you turn off LED screens. It also helps to dim lights and use flashlights or low-powered night lights in your space if you need to get around during that last hour or in the middle of the night. If sleep is a real big problem, you might have to consider replacing those energy-saving curly lights.
“I had a patient who had switched lighting in her entire house over to the full-spectrum (energy saving) lights,” Dr. Darley said. “When she switched the bedroom and wind down lamps back to the yellow spectrum bulbs, her sleep noticeably improved.”
4. Sleep In Total Darkness – Make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible. Studies show that exposure to room light during sleep can suppress melatonin production by more than 50 percent. Even a small amount of light can make sleep more difficult. Roller shades can help with the blackout. Sleeping masks also can be useful.
Clearly, our brighter modern age is not conducive to sleep. But blue light doesn’t have to be a nighttime succubus. Just making a few basic changes to bedtime routines can go a long way to more healthful shuteye.