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Light Therapy for Insomnia

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 19, 2021

Light therapy is a type of treatment for insomnia and other sleep disorders. The goal is to reset your body clock so you feel alert during the day and tired in the evening. If you have trouble waking up, light therapy in the morning can help. If you tend to wake up too early, light therapy in the evening may be helpful.

How Does It Work?

During light therapy, you’ll sit 1-2 feet away from something called a light therapy box, which gives off bright light. The light is artificial, but your body will think it’s natural light from the sun. The light tells your body to stop making a “sleep hormone” called melatonin.

If you do light therapy consistently and follow your doctor’s instructions, you may be able to shift your sleep schedule so it works better for you.

Your doctor will tell you when and for how long to do your light therapy sessions. It will be based on how strong your light therapy box is and how you react to it. If it’s strong, 20 minutes per session may be enough. If it’s weaker, you could need up to 2 hours.

How Effective Is It?

Light therapy isn’t a cure for a sleep disorder, but it can ease your symptoms. It can also give you more energy and increase your sense of well-being. You might start to notice a difference in just a few days, but it could take 2 weeks or longer.

Light therapy doesn’t work for everyone, but you can take certain steps to make it more likely to work for you. For example, ask your doctor to recommend a particular light therapy box that is right for you. Also, consider adding psychotherapy to your treatment plan to address thought patterns that might be keeping you awake. Stay consistent by doing your light therapy even on days when you don’t need to get up at any particular time. It’s also a good idea to:

  • Dim the lights at bedtime.
  • Don’t use your phone or computer, or watch TV, before bed.
  • Avoid exercising within an hour of bedtime.
  • Get as much sunlight as possible during times when you want to be awake.

Is It Safe?

Light therapy is safe as long as you do it correctly. Never look directly into a bright light because it can damage your eyes. Light therapy boxes don’t give off ultraviolet (UV) rays, so there’s no risk of skin damage. Still, talk to a doctor or sleep specialist before you start. They can help you design a safe, effective light therapy plan.

If you have a condition that affects your eyes, like cataracts, or your eyes are sensitive because of medicine or medical issues, light therapy probably isn’t right for you.

Are There Side Effects?

If you have side effects, they’ll probably be mild and not last long. Some people say it strains their eyes or gives them a headache or nausea. Others actually feel too energetic after a light therapy session. If you notice any of these things, you can talk to your doctor about shortening your sessions, taking breaks during long ones, or moving farther from your light box.

Is It Convenient?

One great thing about light therapy is that you can do it at home. You can even do other activities during your light therapy sessions, like reading, cooking, and using your computer. Also, your light therapy box doesn’t need to take up extra space in your home. Light therapy boxes can be in the form of a floor lamp, a desk lamp, an alarm clock, and other common household items. If you prefer, you can wear something called a light visor on your head, which allows you to move around during your sessions.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Sleep Foundation: “Light Therapy For Insomnia Sufferers.”

Mayo Clinic: “Light Therapy.”

Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania: “The Use of Bright Light in the Treatment of Insomnia.”

Drug and Alcohol Services South Australia: “Insomnia Management Kit, Bright Light Therapy.”

Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

Journal of Clinical Psychology: “Awake at 4am: Treatment of Insomnia With Early Morning Awakenings Among Older Adults.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders.”

American Academy of Sleep Medicine: “Bright Light Therapy.”

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