Seeing Red at Night

Results of a new study suggest that the color of the light you’re exposed to at night (think about the night light in your bathroom) can make a difference in how you sleep.

nightlightGoing away on vacation reminds me of all the ways my house is set up to help me steer clear of insomnia. Take the lighting situation at night. Even a 4-watt nightlight can put the kibosh on my sleep. So the nightlight in our bathroom is covered on two sides with black tape. I keep a small flashlight by my bed for use when I need to prowl around the house.

But I misplaced my flashlight one night up in northern Michigan, creating a tricky situation when I woke up needing to go to the bathroom. I decided to take a chance on feeling my way to the throne . . . only to slam into a wall. Nix to that!

But turning on the light was no better option. I shielded my eyes, but the fluorescent lighting flooded every nook and cranny of the bathroom and woke me up so completely that it took at least 45 minutes to fall back to sleep.

Better Lighting at Night

When you’re away from home, a small flashlight is probably all you need to get yourself to the bathroom and back with a minimum of arousal. At home, you can take other steps to assure that lighting has little impact on your sleep, and results of a new study, previewed in the blog, suggest that the color of light at night can make a difference.

In this experiment conducted by researchers affiliated with The Ohio State University, white and blue light at night had negative effects on the behavior of female hamsters, and reduced the density of hair-like growths on brain cells that transmit chemical messages from one cell to another. Exposure to red light at night, on the other hand, had much less impact on the hamsters’ brains and behavior.

Red Light for Humans

These results may be applicable to humans, the study authors say. Red light in offices may be beneficial to night shift workers, and it may be less disturbing to hospital patients to be awakened to red light rather than white light at night. Red light may also be helpful in the home.

“If you need a nightlight in the bathroom or bedroom,” said co-author Tracy Bedrosian, “it may be better to have one that gives off red light rather than white light.”

This makes perfect sense to me. I hear a lot about how exposure to white and blue light blocks the secretion of melatonin and can delay the timing of sleep. But there’s never any mention of red light—which may be an even better answer to my home lighting needs than a nightlight covered with black tape.

What kinds of light seem to affect your sleep? Have you done anything to reduce your exposure to light at night?

Author: Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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