Struggling to sleep at night? How to counteract the effects of excessive screen time and support a healthy circadian rhythm

Struggling to Sleep at night?

If you’re reading this past midnight, you’re probably one of the millions of people who suffer from sleeping disorders. Sleep disorder is a general term for a variety of illnesses that prevent you from getting adequate, restful sleep. Lack of sleep is a common problem with serious consequences. A sleepless night here and there is not a problem. However, when sleep deprivation becomes chronic, the long-term effects have a serious impact on your quality of life.[1]

Why is Good Sleep Important?

In the past few years, more and more research has been done to show how sleep is an important factor in a number of health issues. In fact, chronic sleep deprivation has been closely associated with hypertension, heart attacks, strokes, obesity, diabetes, depression, and anxiety, decreased brain function, memory loss, weakened immune system, lower fertility rates, and psychiatric disorders.[2]

Sleep deprivation has also been linked to an increase in traffic accidents and workplace injuries[3], as well as a negative impact on the economy, with countries losing billions of dollars due to absenteeism and lower productivity. 

Despite this, Americans are getting less sleep than ever before. Adults generally need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night to stay healthy and productive, yet 35.5% of adults in the United States receive less than that. Teens especially need more sleep to help with their cognitive development. Despite this, about 75% sleep less than 8 hours per night. [4]

Why Aren’t We Getting Good Sleep?

There are a thousand things that can affect our ability to sleep effectively. These are some of the most common:

  1. Too much caffeine. Many people are unaware that their afternoon pick-me-up could actually be the cause of their lethargy during the day and wakefulness at night. Caffeine has a half-life of 3-5 hours, which means that even several hours after consuming it, it can still be in your system. In fact, caffeine may cause you to lose up to an hour of sleep if you consume it even 6 hours before bedtime.[5]
  2. Not enough exercise. Studies have shown that those who get less exercise have a harder time falling and staying asleep. They also have poorer quality sleep overall, and are more likely to sleep fewer hours. Exercise appears to improve the amount of slow wave (or deep) sleep you get, although researchers aren’t exactly certain how sleep and exercise are linked. Exercise also releases endorphins, which can improve your mood and, as a result, your sleep quality. Finally, because excess weight is linked to sleep apnea, insomnia, and poor sleep quality, exercise can improve sleep indirectly by helping you maintain a healthy weight.
  3. Stress. Stress causes the body to release cortisol and adrenaline, both known as stress hormones. This is good in cases of short-term stress, since it triggers your body’s fight-or-flight response and allows you to deal with the situation. However, if you are dealing with high-stress events all day, it may take longer for your brain to unwind to the relaxed state required for sleep. People who experience high stress are more prone to be nervous at night, waking up with a racing mind and a need to fix their problems.[6] Ironically, sleep deprivation itself can be a source of stress, further worsening insomnia.[7]
  4. Poor sleeping habits. Your sleeping habits as well as your bedroom environment affect the quality of your sleep. Poor sleeping habits include: going to bed late, scrolling on your phone or watching TV in bed, falling asleep on the couch, even sleeping in on weekends. On the other hand, good sleep hygiene include: going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, avoiding naps, sleeping in a dark, quiet room that is kept at a comfortable temperature, getting enough exercise, and limiting your caffeine intake.
Top View of Handsome Young Man Sleeping Cozily on a Bed in His Bedroom at Night. Blue Nightly Colors with Cold Weak Lamppost Light Shining Through the Window.

How Light Affects Your Sleep

Our bodies have a 24-hour internal clock called the Circadian Rhythm that determines our sleep-wake cycle. It is responsible for a variety of biological responses, including how many hours of sleep we require and when in the evening we begin to feel sleepy. While humans are generally diurnal (active during the day), there are some differences between individuals. For example, night owls have a circadian rhythm that is slightly slower than 24 hours, while early birds have a circadian rhythm that is somewhat faster. A person’s internal clock also tends to change over the course of their life. For instance, teenagers tend to go to bed later and sleep longer. But as we become older, our circadian rhythms shift to include earlier mornings and fewer hours of sleep overall.[8]

The circadian rhythm is controlled by our pineal gland, a tiny gland deep in the middle of our brains. Because of its connection to light, it’s sometimes referred to as the third eye. One of its key functions is the secretion of melatonin, which is the hormone that promotes sleepiness. The function is controlled by light, which is why light is one of the main drivers in your ability to fall and stay asleep. However, because our bodies react to light in different ways, different wavelengths of light have different effects on sleep.[9]

During the daytime, sunlight is absorbed by photoreceptors in the retina of the eye. These photoreceptors then send messages to the pineal gland, which suppresses melatonin release, making you feel more awake. However, when the sun sets, our bodies produce more melatonin as it prepares for sleep. 

It’s a bit more complicated in modern times because we spend most of our time indoors, surrounded by artificial light. This messes up our biological clocks have negative impacts on the quality of our sleep.

Blue Light Keeps You Alert

The ups and downs of our circadian rhythm are determined by the amount of blue and red light we receive. Blue light, like that found in sunlight, keeps you alert and sends a “wake up!” message to our brains, no matter what time it is. This is a part of evolution, since millions of years ago, the only source of blue light early humans came from the sun. And when it set, our early humans spent their evenings in darkness, effectively setting their internal clocks to “sleep” mode.[10]

Artificial light is relatively new in humanity’s history if you think about it (roughly the last 150 years out of 300,000). We are now surrounded by artificial light 24/7, sometimes even while we sleep.

Even exposure to bright room light before bedtime has been proven to delay the onset and duration of melatonin.[11] However, the negative impacts can be mitigated by using dimmer switches, low-wattage table lamps, or red lights. The real problem is that all day, we position our devices (smartphones, laptops, tablets) mere inches away from our eyes, and thus we are constantly exposed to blue light, which mimics daylight. This confuses our pineal glands, suppresses melatonin release, and effectively disrupts our circadian rhythm. Blue light exposure at night has also been shown to increase cortisol levels.[12][13]

You can now see why the number of people suffering from insomnia and sleep deprivation is constantly increasing.

How Red Light Therapy Helps You Sleep Better

Red light therapy can have a positive effect on sleep, as studies suggest, and has the potential to one day treat certain sleep disorders.

Unlike blue light, red light does not act as a stimulant, and instead, helps you relax. Its low color temperature has a calming effect on the body, and it’s the best wavelength of light for getting a good night’s sleep. Using red light at night can help your body naturally transition into its sleep cycle.

Here are the ways red light therapy help you achieve good quality sleep:

  • Boost in 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 [16].
Another 2018 study on the effectiveness of red light therapy versus botulinum toxin A on migraines showed a reduction in sleep disturbance in participants receiving the red light therapy treatment. [17]

  • Reduction in sleep inertia

Sleep inertia, or grogginess, can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.[18] A 2019 study evaluated cognitive performance in 30 subjects following red light therapy exposure either during 90-minute sleep periods or upon waking. Participants not only saw a reduction in sleepiness subjectively, but they performed better on a variety of tasks as well.[19]

According to the researchers, this could have major implications for overnight shift workers who get the chance to nap during their shifts and whose optimal job performance is critical, such as first responders and medical residents.

Insomnia sufferers may benefit from this research as well. Waking up at a consistent time is one of the key elements to proper sleep hygiene, and this can be extremely difficult for insomniacs. Using red light therapy upon waking may allow poor sleepers to resist the urge to hit snooze, allowing them to retrain their circadian clock.

  • Your workouts get a boost

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.[20]

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.

  • Reduction in pain and inflammation

The majority of sleep issues are not caused by insomnia but pain or discomfort. Chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and arthritis are three of the most common conditions that keep people from getting proper sleep. Worse, sleep deprivation often exacerbates the pain, creating a vicious cycle.[21]

Red light therapy has been clinically proven to reduce pain and speed up healing for a number of issues and conditions. 

  • A habit cue that bedtime is approaching

An important habit to achieve good sleep is to establish a consistent bedtime routine. The most effective way to do this is to set a series of behavioral and environmental cues that let the brain and the body know that it’s time to relax. It doesn’t have to be complicated. For some, simply brushing their teeth work. For others, the cues can be a bit more complicated, such as putting on pajamas at a certain time, making a cup of tea, or picking up a book.

Red light therapy can serve as ambient light in the night, which releases melatonin, as well as provide a visual cue that it’s time to relax and go to bed.[22]

  • Completely safe for daily use

To manage their insomnia, many people turn to sleep aids. While some may have short-term positive effects, most of these are habituating, meaning a greater dose is needed to achieve the same effect over time, which can result in dependence on the pills. Also, many sleeping aids have unpleasant, and sometimes harmful, side effects, including daytime drowsiness, brain fog, changes in appetite, dry mouth, diarrhea or constipation, dizziness, and many others. 

On the other hand, red light therapy has been consistently found to have no risks, even when used daily, and side effects are rare, mild, and temporary.

Other Light-Related Tips To Get Better Sleep

Night

  • If possible, block all light from your bedroom. Consider installing blackout curtains or using a sleep mask.
  • If you use a nightlight, choose one that emits dim red, orange, or yellow light.
  • Remove, power down, or use night mode on electronics that shine into your bedroom.
  • To really get back on track, avoid electronic screens for 30 minutes to an hour before going to bed.

Day

  • Open your window blinds when you wake up in the morning. Let the sunshine in as soon as you can, when possible.
  • If you must wake up before sunrise, turn on some low-wattage lights.
  • Expose yourself to natural light throughout the day to improve your alertness and mood.

[1] Cuncic, A. What Is Chronic Sleep Deprivation? 2020

[2] Rosenberg, C. 10 Long Term Effects of Sleep Deprivation, 2019

[3] Oxford University Press USA. Sleep-deprived people are more likely to have car crashes. 2018

[4] American Sleep Association. Sleep and Sleep Disorder Statistics. 2022

[5] Pacheco, D. Caffeine and Sleep. 2021

[6] Hirotsu, C., Tufik, S. & Anderson, M. L. Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. 2015

[7] Nollet, M., Wisden, W. & Franks, N. P. Sleep deprivation and stress: a reciprocal relationship. 2020

[8] Pacheco, D. Light Therapy for Insomnia Sufferers. 2020

[9] Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. The Color of the Light Affects the Circadian Rhythms. 2021

[10] Wahl, S. et. al. The inner clock—Blue light sets the human rhythm. 2019

[11] Gooley, J. J. et. al. Exposure to Room Light before Bedtime Suppresses Melatonin Onset and Shortens Melatonin Duration in Humans. 2011

[12] Rahman, S. A. et.al. Characterizing the temporal Dynamics of Melatonin and Cortisol Changes in Response to Nocturnal Light Exposure. 2019

[13] Timberg, C. Many teens sleep with their phones, survey finds — just like their parents. 2019

[16] Zhao, J. Red Light and the Sleep Quality and Endurance Performance of Chinese Female Basketball Players. 2012

[17] Mazzacoratti Loeb, L. et. al. Botulinum toxin A (BT-A) versus low-level laser therapy (LLLT) in chronic migraine treatment: a comparison. 2018

[18] Hildtich, C. J. & McHill A. W. Sleep inertia: current insights. 2019

[19] Figueiro, M. G. et. al. Effects of red light on sleep inertia. 2019

[20] Baroni BM, Leal Junior EC, Geremia JM, Diefenthaeler F, Vaz MA. Effect of light-emitting diodes therapy (LEDT) on knee extensor muscle fatigue. Photomed Laser Surg. 2010

[21] Finan, P. H. et. al. The association of sleep and pain: An update and a path forward. 2013

[22] Yeager, R. L. et. al. Melatonin as a principal component of red light therapy. 2007

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