One of the most impactful, unnatural aspects of modern lives comes from using our lights and electronic screens at night. Our ancestors lived with light in their nighttime routines ever since the discovery of controlled fire, but firelight is relatively dim and its amber glow emits very little blue light. Sunlight, on the other hand, is strong and full spectrum. For the vast majority of our species’ history, it was a completely safe assumption that if there was strong and blue light, it was daytime; and so we evolved to utilize the presence (or absence) of strong/blue light to maintain our circadian rhythms and help us distinguish day from night.
In modern times, our lightbulbs and screens expose us to blue light far past sundown. This bombardment of unnatural light at night confuses our internal clock. When certain photopigments in our eyes called “melanopsin” are struck with blue light, our bodies shut down the production of melatonin. Melatonin has been identified as an absolutely crucial sleep hormone. The more we are exposed to blue light at the wrong time, the more confused our circadian rhythm becomes and the longer it can take for the release of melatonin to finally kick in once the blue light is gone. Our body may also cease melatonin generation in the middle of the night, leaving us awake after only a few hours of sleep.
Many people believe their sleep is already adequate, but they are often not aware, or can no longer remember, what a truly good night’s sleep feels like. In order to correct your circadian rhythm and get optimal amounts of sleep, you should avoid blue light for 2 to 3 hours before bedtime.
I believe that nighttime blue light avoidance is poised to become an increasingly well known issue, emerging as the new “standing desk” for the health conscious. Recognition of the importance of sleep to our health and mental acuity is long overdue. Our culture tends to admire people who eschew sleep, regardless of whether it’s to party or work. A popular phrase is: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”. In reality, sleep is as important to our health as nutrition, exercise, or stress management.
While the detrimental effects of blue light are recognized by a growing minority, it has yet to gain widespread awareness. From what I’ve found, products to help people in this cause are scant, and online articles on how to technically achieve blue light elimination are scattered and incomprehensive. My goal here is to distill what I’ve learned in the hopes of helping others new to this endeavor. Before I begin, here are 3 other steps you can immediately take to begin improving your sleep and melatonin production.
- Get outside during the brightest time of each day. Getting plenty of exposure to blue light in the daytime may be as important to your circadian rhythm as avoiding it in the middle of the night. If you can’t get outside, get a light designed to help seasonal affective disorder.
- Exercise in the morning (but not before sunrise). Exercise generates cortisol, which acts as the complementary opposite of melatonin in maintaining your circadian rhythm.
- On average, eat more carbs at dinner than you do at lunch or breakfast. Carbs boost tryptophan production which ultimately boosts melatonin levels. You may also not want to eat too close to bedtime.
Spectrometers and spectroscopes are devices designed to break down and analyze the intensity of light throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. For our practical purposes we can use them to identify sources of blue light.
Spectrometers are much fancier and utilize electric photometers to automatically analyze and generate graphs and charts. These devices get pretty expensive, and I’m not exorbitant enough to purchase one for the sheer purpose of blue light elimination. However, if I were to make a choice, I like the “spectruino”, which is built on top of an arduino foundation.
Spectroscopes, in comparison, are relatively simple and are often DIY constructed with audio CDs, toilet paper tubes, and aluminum foil. A clever elaboration of this idea from PublicLab allows you to build a spectroscope attached to the camera lens of your smartphone. The captured photos on your smartphone are the same thing you’d see with your bare eyes when looking through a manual spectroscope. I chose to buy a simple, manual spectroscope and it has served my purposes admirably. When I refer to personal analysis of the effectiveness of various blue blocking methods, this is the tool I have used.
Blue light blocking glasses
Red or amber tinted glasses are the single most practical tool in blue light elimination. I have tried 3 models, with progressively darker and redder tints. As you’d expect: when viewing full spectrum light tinted through the glasses in my spectroscope, the darker and redder lenses did a better job eliminating wavelengths throughout the blue and further into the green spectrum. Green light has still been shown to have some effects suppressing melatonin, so I suspect the darker and redder the tint on your glasses, the better they’ll be.
If you already wear prescription glasses, as I do, there are still some good options for “safety glasses”, but in my experience they aren’t very comfortable. This is the best pair I’ve found for wearing over prescription glasses. These are the best I’ve found in general, and my wife uses these, but they may not fit over prescription glasses.
Ambient lighting by fire
Bright lights can still delay the release of melatonin, even if you are wearing red tinted glasses, so it’s wise to dim the lights and let your eyes relax in low light. But beyond dim lighting, there’s something meditative and entrancing about an open flame. Humans have understandably evolved a love of fire. My wife and I primarily see by candle and oil lamps at night. We find them relaxing and conducive of sleep, perhaps for physiological reasons beyond melatonin. We’ve both grown to look forward to our relaxing time at night when we bask in the glow of firelight.
I’ve never used the LED “candles” such as these. My guess is some of these may work great, while others may still emit blue light. For now, I just stick with time-tested firelight.
If you’re like me, you may have had little to no experience using candles or oil lamps in the past. Here are a couple finds I’ve made since toying with these ancient forms of lighting:
- Oil lamps burn much longer than candles, but when it does finally come time to replace the wick and oil it can be more hassle. We have just one oil lamp, which works very well and gives off a lot of light. We burn it every night for 2-3 hours and it will last a month before it needs new oil.
- This is one of the most practical candles we’ve found. We find that it actually burns longer than 48 hours. It is also exceptionally bright: the brightest flame in our house. Pillar candles are the only other candles that compete in brightness and burn length.
- Lamps and candles can take up precious table and countertop space. Consider some candle sconces to maximize space. In addition, if you have a reflective dish behind your sconce, you’ll generate more light.
Ambient lighting by LED
The maintenance of candles and oil lamps can get annoying. Almost every night there’s at least a tea light or two that needs replacing. We’ve found it helpful to supplement our candle lighting with LEDs. The most comprehensive current solution is made by Philips. They offer a ton of cool features, most of which aren’t necessary for simple blue light avoidance. A fully programmable light capable of 16 million colors may be overkill if you find your primary use case is just manually setting it to red or white between day and night. Something like this will serve the same basic needs with fewer bells and whistles. I’d love to find one of these that goes above 10W (which is a 40W incandescent equivalent), but thus far this is the most powerful that seems to exist.
The Philips Imageo are excellent and work great as lighting supplements. We bring them out anytime we are playing a board game or simply need more light around the table. On our bookshelves we have an Aura Table Lamp and an Iris Table Lamp. If you are looking for as much light as possible: The Iris is considerably brighter than the Aura, with the Imageo being the dimmest by far because they run on batteries.
Flashlights and headlamps
Before bed we snuff all the candles. But when I wake up in the middle of the night and need to get to the bathroom, the last thing I want to do is bother with lighting another candle or, even worse, turning on an overhead white light! My solution is a red-LED headlamp stored on my nightstand. Insofar as orange goggles are the answer when awash in artificial lights, a red-LED headlamp is the answer when in pitch dark. I particularly like this model because it makes it almost impossible to accidently activate the white LEDs. The only way to get the white is to hold the power button down for several seconds: otherwise it’s always red. I also keep an LED flashlight on my keychain, just in case. The “Photon” brand seems to be the cadillac of keychain flashlights. I have this one, which is great.
You could follow all the advice above, but if you’re staring at your computer/phone/tablet every night you still won’t make much progress. Luckily, there are ways to use our electronics at night without disrupting our circadian rhythms. The most well-known is a software product called f.lux. On the Mac, this product is all you need, just be sure to get the beta and crank the bedtime “temperature” down to 1200k. I also always choose “Extra hour of sleep” from the “Customize” menu to ensure the screen is fully in “bedtime” mode by sunset. On iOS, you have to jailbreak your device to install f.lux. The iOS versions are only capable of reducing the color temperature down to 2300k. If I set the background of my iPad or iPhone to blue with f.lux at 2300k, I can still see blue bands through my spectroscope. If, however, I try the same experiment against the monitor on my Mac at 1200k, the blue is entirely gone. I don’t know how f.lux works on Windows or Android, but if it also doesn’t go below 2300k, this is not a complete solution.
Until the software finally catches up on all devices, complete blue-light elimination requires a screen filter. Even though there are several options for a blue-light blocking screen filter, there’s only one on the market that appears 100% effective in my spectroscope. I have tried “Sleepshield”, “3H”, and “Tech Armor”. None of these significantly tint the color of the screen, focusing instead on the UV spectrum. The only filters I’ve found that truly come with a strong amber tint which removes all blue light are from LowBlueLights. I simply don’t watch TV past 9pm at night, so I can’t report on the efficacy of their large TV filters, but I use the iPhone and iPad models nightly and they are excellent.
Dear manufacturers: I love technology and look forward to my home being a part of the internet of things, but I’d sure love to do away with this intermediate step where everything gets an LED touchscreen! Put it on the WiFi and let me control it with my iPhone instead. My home is awash with friendly gadgets reminding me that they’re on, charging, fully charged, on standby, muted, ready to dispense water, connected to the internet, preheated, rinsing, finished making coffee, heating the house, or about a million other things.
If a device has an LED with nothing better to show, it will still show the time. If my carbon monoxide detector detects no problems, it helpfully displays a big ole 0 on its display. Not even the Nest provides any option to disable its LED screen.
There are basically 4 categories of problems here:
- Integrated touch screens which you still want to use, but emit blue light. I have two of these in my home: the Nest and my refrigerator. LowBlueLights is your answer here just like for the iPhone and iPad. They sell filters of any dimension. Be sure to err on the side of larger than you need: they are easy to further trim on your own.
- LEDs emitting data you still care about but need tinted red. I’ve used this red, transparent packing tape for things like the lights on my Mint Cleaner with great success.
- Auxiliary light sources which you can’t replace. Our refrigerator door has little overhead lights that automatically turn on. I covered these lights in the same red, transparent packing tape. We still get refrigerator-specific task-lighting, but it’s tinted a lovely shade of red.
- LEDs that are pointless. For these champions of waste, I recommend black-out static vinyl. If you live somewhere with excessive light pollution this can also be useful on bedroom windows.
That’s it! This is a fast-evolving niche, with new ideas, products, and strategies emerging all the time. As such, this is not meant to be a static guide. If you know of anything I’ve missed or overlooked which could be a useful addition, I’d love to hear it!
Finally: a thought on moderation. This guide offers solutions for a complete, almost obsessive, pursuit of blue light elimination. During relaxing nights spent at home, I believe it’s worthwhile to take every single step addressed above. But don’t sacrifice your social life or your happiness. If worrying about blue light exposure causes you undue stress, or forces you to cancel social engagements or avoid otherwise fun activities: you are definitely doing it wrong. Use this information as a tool to make your life and sleep better where possible, but remember that having strong social connections is easily as important as a good night’s sleep!