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How Red Light Helps You Sleep Better

How Red Light Helps You Sleep Better

You probably have co-workers who joke about how much coffee they need every morning. But by mid-afternoon, they fade and have to fight the urge to fall asleep at their desk. And then later that night, when they can finally get some rest, they lie wide awake. Sound familiar?

Sleeping problems are very common for adults. We’ve all felt the short-term effects of a poor night’s sleep, and you’re probably aware of the health risks associated with chronic sleep issues. What many don’t realize is the central role that light plays in our sleep cycle, and additionally, that some types of light are better and worse for healthy sleep.

In this article, we’ll cover the normal types of sleep, the consequences of poor sleep, and the clinical research that demonstrates how red light therapy can help reset your circadian rhythm and get more sleep.

The Negative Consequences of Poor Sleep

In the short-term, sleep deprivation affects our mood and makes us less alert, so we’re less productive and more likely to make erratic decisions. In the long-term, chronic sleep problems contribute to numerous other physical health issues. Here’s a closer look at 3 of the major negative health effects associated with chronic poor sleep:

Weight gain: Being tired every day is no way to get in better shape. Epidemiological data suggest a strong correlation between weight gain with either too little or too much sleep. In addition, a large base of clinical evidence shows a strong connection between short sleep cycles and Type II diabetes. [2] Sleep deprivation has also been shown to decrease leptin, a vital appetite-suppressing hormone. Leptin acts as a sort of internal fuel gauge, so when it’s thrown off by abnormal sleep patterns, it’s harder to regulate when you need to eat. [3]

More inflammation: Inflammatory markers are found in people who have sleep disturbance issues as well as overly long sleep durations. This highlights the fact that both too little and too much sleep may cause inflammation. [4,5]

Worse cognitive function: There’s a general consensus among experts that lack of sleep leads to slower response times, decreased alertness, and an increased variability in performance. Recent research suggests sleep deprivation may especially affect cognitive functions that rely on emotional data, which makes sense to anyone who’s been tired and cranky due to lack of sleep. [6]  

How Light Impacts Your Sleep

Light plays a major role in your sleep cycle, more than most of us realize. The body’s circadian clock interprets light as a sign of when to sleep and be awake, which regulates everything from appetite and metabolism, to hormone levels and immune function. [7] Of course, this all developed long before humans figured out how to make light available at all hours of the day. We have incredible lighting technology now, but our bodies still react to light like they always have.


How Blue Light Keeps You Up at Night

Not all light is the same, and some kinds are a lot better than others for sleep. Based on the graph above, you can see that blue light has a high color temperature, so our body reacts to it like bright daytime sunlight. Most of our electronic devices have screens that emanate blue light, and when you sit in front of a glowing screen for hours, your body gets the message it’s time to be wide awake. When you jump in bed and try to fall asleep right after, it’s difficult for your body to adjust, even if you’ve been tired all day.

Clinical Studies Show Red Light Helps You Sleep Better

Red light is ideal for evenings because it has a low color temperature, far lower than regular sunlight. You can be immersed in red light at night without giving your body a jolt and altering your internal clock like blue light does. If you’re having trouble sleeping and you’re surrounding yourself with unnatural blue light every night, that’s likely a big factor. Switching to natural red light in the evenings can help your body ease into its sleep cycle more naturally.

Medical research is showing improved sleep from red light therapy in a host of clinical trials. Recent 2018 research out of Brazil assessed the effects of red light therapy and other treatments on patients who suffer from migraine headaches. Researchers found that not only did red light therapy decrease the number of headaches, it also was the only treatment that improved patients’ sleep disorders. [8]

In 2014, a study on the cognitive function of people with traumatic brain injury (TBI) found that participants not only significantly improved cognitive function and saw decreased episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they also reported improved sleep. [9]  

A 2013 Taiwanese study analyzed patients and their electroencephalography (EEG), or electrical brain activity, before, during, and after red light therapy stimulation. Researchers concluded that red light therapy could be especially conducive to falling asleep for people with sleeping disorders. [10]

Red light therapy has been studied closely and found to improve sleep quality as well. In one study performed among elite women basketball players, the participants tried 14-30 minute light therapy sessions once a night for 14 nights. The short-term results showed improved sleep and the researchers found red light therapy to be a nonpharmacologic and noninvasive therapy for treating sleep disorders. [11]

Natural melatonin production with red light: If you’ve had trouble sleeping, you might have tried or heard about melatonin. It’s a naturally-occurring hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness. Exposure to light after dark inhibits the body’s ability to release melatonin, increasing the time it takes you to fall asleep and preventing you from staying asleep. If you’re in red light before bed, you’ll produce more melatonin than if you’re surrounded by synthetic blue light, and that can help you fall and stay asleep. [12]

In a study with 47 people with TBI (traumatic brain injury), patients received 18 red & near infrared light treatments and saw an average increase of 1 hour of sleep per night. Researchers concluded that red and near infrared photons of natural light increased melatonin levels in participants. [13]


Conclusion: Sleep Better with Red Light Therapy

It’s no secret that poor sleep and the resulting fatigue makes us less healthy and less productive in the short & long term. What fewer people realize is that the light we’re exposed to plays a huge role in our ability to sleep. Red light therapy has been found in numerous clinical studies to promote better sleep, and there’s a huge base of research showing that 7-8 hours a night for adults is not just a luxury, but a must for people seeking optimal performance and recovery. [14]

Scientific Sources & Medical References:

 Harvey C., Bruce A. “Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation” National Academy of Sciences. 2006, Bookshelf ID: NBK19960. doi: 10.17226/11617

 Kristen K. “Impact of sleep and sleep loss on glucose homeostasis and appetite” Sleep Medicine Clinics. 2007, June; 2(2): 187-197. doi: 10.1016/jsmc.2007.03.004

 Sunil S., Mani K. “Sleep and Metabolism: An Overview” Int J Endocrinol. 2010, Aug 2. doi: 10.1155/2010/270832

 Michael I., Richard O., Judith Carroll. “Sleep Disturbance, Sleep Duration, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies and Experimental Sleep Deprivation” Biological Psychiatry. 2016, July 1; 80(1): 40-52. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.05.014

 Janet M., Norah S., Hans M., Monika H. “Sleep Loss and Inflammation” Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 2010, October; 24(5): 775-784. dio: 10.1016/jbeem.2010.08.014

 Killgore WD. “Effects of sleep deprivation on cognition” Progress in Brain Research. 2010; 185: 105-129. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-53702-7.00007-5

 Lirong Z., Phyllis Z. “Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders” Neurologic Clinics. 2012, November; 30(4):1167-1191. doi: 10.1016/j.ncl.2012.08.011

Loeb LM, Amorim RP, et al. “Botulinum toxin A (BT-A) versus low-level laser therapy (LLLT) in chronic migraine treatment: a comparison.” Arquivos de neuro-psiquiatria. 2018 Oct;76(10):663-667.

Naeser MA, Zafonte R, et al. “Significant improvements in cognitive performance post-transcranial, red/near-infrared light-emitting diode treatments in chronic, mild traumatic brain injury: open-protocol study.” Journal of Neurotrauma. 2014 Jun 1;31(11):1008-17.

Wu JH, Chang YC. Effect of low-level laser stimulation on EEG power in normal subjects with closed eyes. Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2013; 2013:476565.

 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. 2012, November-December; 47(6):673-678. doi: 10.4085/1062-47.6.08

 Morita T., Tokura H. “ Effects of lights of different color temperature on the nocturnal changes in core temperature and melatonin in humans” Journal of Physiological Anthropology. 1996, September; 15(5):243-246.

 Margaret N., Michael H. “Traumatic Brain Injury: A Major Medical Problem That Could Be Treated Using Transcranial, Red/Near-Infrared LED Photobiomodulation”  Photomedicine and Laser Surgery. 2015, September; 33(9): 443-446. doi: 10.1089/pho.2015.3986

 Nathaniel W., Safwan B., Gregory B., Donald B., Orfeu B., Daniel B., David D., James G., Michael G., Clete K., Raman M., Jennifer M., Sanjay P., Stuart Q., Esra T. “Recommended Amount of Sleep for a Healthy Adult: A joint Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society” Sleep. 2015, June; 38(6): 843-844. doi: 10.5665/sleep.4716

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