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The science behind light therapy.

By Laura Entis
June 7, 2017

We’re a nation of insomniacs, and sleep is a booming business. Boutique mattresses, pillows, and so many gadgets are available for pre-order, claiming to put the issue to bed once and for all.

Into this overstuffed category comes another product: A $129 sleep tracking device and compatible $99 lamp just launched on Kickstarter. The project is seeking to raise an ambitious $100,000 (as of this writing it was a little over half of the way towards its goal.) I can’t speak for the reliability of the remote sleep tracker, which purports to identify circadian rhythms via electromagnetic waves and then maps them on an app. (Judging from the Kickstarter page, this app is a tad aggressive: “Good morning Chris, your body clock is now out of sync by 56 minutes,” a sample text reads. “Let’s get you back in sync.”)

But the lamp, which changes colors as the day progresses, is interesting. While the Kickstarter project talks a lot about a proprietary algorithm etc. etc., the basic premise is pretty simple: light fluctuates from blue in the morning, to white in the afternoon, to red in evening. By exposing oneself to the right lightwaves at the right time of day, the idea is that you can reset your internal clock.

There’s actual research to back this practice up. Circadian rhythms, or sleep/wake cycles, are influenced by a variety of factors, but light is by far the most influential. What’s more, different light waves create different responses in the body. Blue light (or short-wave light) suppresses melatonin, a hormone that rises during the mid-to-late evening, encouraging sleep. Because our smartphone and computer screens emit blue light, when we stare at them before bed we are resetting our body’s internal clock, making it more difficult to fall asleep. Alternatively, there’s some evidence that red light has the opposite effect.

NASA recently installed LED a new light system on the International Space Station, where the sun sets every 90 minutes. The idea is that by programming lights to shift in color and wavelength, astronauts will be able to maintain a more normal sleep schedule.

At $99, the Kickstarter lamp is one option. But if you’re looking to pay less for a product that’s available now, there are a variety of light-based alarm clocks for sale on Amazon, including the sunrise alarm clock by Mosche ($32.99) and the sunrise simulation snooze alarm clock by totobay ($27.99). Both include a variety of light colors, and the ability to program a gradual brightening before your desired wake up time.

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