There are numerous causes of not sleeping well including – but not limited to – breathing problems, genes, and stress. Bright light therapy affects the circadian rhythm thus aligning the natural drive to sleep and your chosen bed time. Its beneficial effects are granted in disorders related to circadian misalignment, particularly when you tend to sleep at an inappropriate time. Bright light is also efficient in other disorders which are not directly circadian. Essentially, this is true in any case where the benefit of light can compensate for the problem: poor/interrupted sleep or sleep problems related to depression or anxiety.
Sleep problems of the body: apnea and restless legs:
Before discussing insomnia itself, you need to know some common symptoms of bodily disturbances of sleep:
- Do you tend to suffocate or gasp for breath during the night or especially when awakened? Do you snore loudly or stop breathing when asleep? Such problems suggest a possibility of sleep apnea which requires attention from your pulmonologist or GP rather than seeking bright light therapy.
- If you struggle when sitting or laying calmly and need to move or stretch your legs repeatedly, it may be restless leg syndrome that is disturbing your sleep. Again, we recommend consulting your GP or psychiatrist about this issue.
- Finally, if severe pain, depression, or anxiety are affecting your sleep, you may benefit from bright light therapy in addition to professional treatment. The cause of pain needs to be investigated and in the case of severe depression or anxiety, you deserve as much care as possible. Thus, the treatment should not be limited to bright light or any other self-help device or technique.
Sleep problems of the inner clock: circadian disorders
If you simply cannot fall asleep or if you awaken too early, it is likely that you suffer from delayed (or advanced) sleep phase disorder rather than insomnia . Such a problem is calling for bright light therapy. Basic facts:
- These disorders are common and commonly misdiagnosed as insomnia. The pathology behind it, however, is different; The sleep mechanism is working as it should, only it is moved in time. This makes your brain want to sleep earlier or later than required by the 24 hour day.
- Because of the nature of the problem, it makes more sense to pay attention to the timing of the sleep rather than your sleep quality. For this reason sleep medication is a poor choice because it solves the effect and not the cause. Drugs like melatonin or ramelteon do affect the timing of sleep but they are no more effective than bright light therapy and come with dosage problems and possible side effects. For this reason, bright light therapy is superior to them.
- When applied in the morning, bright light therapy informs the brain that the inner timing is late compared to the clock. Then, the brain updates its clockwork based on these signals. The opposite happens when you shine on yourself in the evening; the brain learns it is not as late as it thought and aligns with this fact. Elementary, my dear Watson.
Sleep problems of unknown cause: true insomnia
When dealing with true insomnia, no matter whether it is due to known disorder or unknown cause, the lamps are effective as well.
- At some point in time, 2 or 3 of every 10 people suffer from sleep problems. There are countless known causes ranging from genes or cardiac/metabolic problems to stress and poor hygiene.
- Bright light therapy delivers strong signals to the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the brain during the day. The effect is twofold. First, the brain activates further in response to these signals which reduces drowsiness. This helps one to feel better during the day – plus the increased brain activity increases the drive to sleep when the night comes. Second, the pronounced difference between light input during the day versus at night increases the gap between “day activation” and “night activation” in the brain. This makes it “more on” during waking hours and “more off” during the night.
- Treatment with bright light is especially recommendable when insomnia is accompanied with depressive tendencies. This is because the promotion of brain activity from bright light comes with antidepressant effects.
Bright lights have been shown to be effective for sleep problems alone as well as together with other treatment options. Two treatments are always more effective than one. In fact, their effects may not only add up but potentiate each other, resulting in more than two times the effectiveness of a singular treatment. If you suffer with sleep problems, you should also take care about your sleep hygiene and opt for psychotherapy.