The Lowdown on LED Light Bulbs and Insomnia
Shedding light on the claims that we can change our mood by changing a bulb
If you’re among the millions of sleep-deprived Americans, you might have heard about two new types of LED light bulbs: one that promises to help you drift off to sleep and another that claims to help energize you in the a.m. Can specialized light bulbs really make a difference?
The answer is probably not.
First some background. The body’s sleep-wake cycle is governed by light. Light acts to suppress melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy. In the natural world (without electricity), when the sun goes down and your eyes are no longer exposed to light, your body produces melatonin, making you naturally sleepy. But in our artificially lit world, lights keep melatonin suppressed, allowing us to stay up later, for better or worse.
The eyes are especially sensitive to a part of the light spectrum called blue light. LED bulbs contain a lot more blue light than compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and incandescent bulbs, which are being phased out.
Enter the new specialized bulbs. One, called the Definitely Digital Good Night LED ($70), claims to emit less blue light than other LED bulbs. Consumer Reports tested this claim and found that the bulb did emit less blue light than other LEDs. But this doesn’t mean that they have less blue light than other types of bulbs or that they actually help people fall asleep.
“Any light with less blue wavelengths will be more conducive for sleep, but why use an LED at night at all?” says Patricia Turner, MD, clinical associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of Kansas School of Medicine.“CFLs would be better than LED, and incandescent would be better yet,” she says. Incandescent lights have the least blue wavelengths, making them a less expensive choice, she says.
Another bulb, the Saffron Drift Light LE ($30), claims to promote healthy sleep by way of its 37-minute auto-dimming feature, which is supposed to help your body adjust gradually to the loss of light, echoing the time it takes for the sun to set. Though there are some reports that “simulated dusk” is well liked by users, there’s no objective evidence that this has any effect on the onset of sleep, says Turner.
Some lights purport to help you wake up, like the Definitely Digital Awake & Alert LED. It claims to have more blue light. It’s true that early morning blue light exposure is important. “It gets the cognitive juices flowing, elevates mood, enhances production of all hormones and optimizes physiology,” says Turner. However, the blue light must be very bright in order to stimulate the effect, and having a single room light bulb is not likely to do the trick, she notes. You’d need more of a room-flooding effect from several bulbs or to be staring right at the lights in front of you. That being said, any blue light is better than no blue light.
So how can you use light to fall asleep? Turner recommends these tips:
- The best advice is to avoid any LED screen within 60 to 90 minutes prior to bedtime. That means computer screens, smart phones and e-readers. Room lights, whether LED, CFL or incandescent, are usually dim enough that they will not suppress melatonin prior to bedtime.
- Try to keep a regular sleep-wake cycle. That way you’ll become naturally tired around the same time every evening.
- Expose yourself to bright sunlight during the day to boost your ability to sleep at night. The exposure helps train your body clock.