Orange Glasses at Night Improve Sleep

After I discovered that morning faces improved my mood, I tried to maximize the effect — determine the the best time, distance, size, and so on. One evening I went to a screening (Taxicab Confessions) at the UC Berkeley journalism school. It started about 7:30 pm and lasted about two hours. Over the next few days, I discovered that the morning-faces effect was gone. It took a few weeks to return.

The problem, I realized, was the room lighting. The auditorium, like almost all campus rooms, was lit with fluorescent lamps. Maybe they were off during the film (one hour?) but they were on before and after. Fluorescent light, in contrast to incandescent light, contains lots of blue. The faces effect, I knew, depended on a sunlight-sensitive oscillator, which determined  a critical period during which faces made a difference. That oscillator was much more sensitive to blue light than red light. If that oscillator wasn’t working properly — e.g., its amplitude was too low — the faces effect disappeared. Normally I never experienced fluorescent light at night. There were no fluorescent lights in my apartment, including the bathroom. Cafes, restaurants, my friends’ living rooms, and so on — all incandescent light. Incandescent light has very little blue.

I hadn’t realized that ordinary fluorescent exposure could cause trouble, but now I did. After that realization, for many years I avoided fluorescent light at night (= after 8 pm). To get home from San Francisco in the evening, I took a cab to avoid fluorescent light on BART. No fluorescent-lit restaurants for dinner, no late-night supermarkets or drug stores. It was bearable, but not pleasant. Except for the Berkeley campus, where students were getting messed up by evenings in libraries, the city of Berkeley was innocuous, but big cities, such as New York with their late hours and heavy subway use, were terrible, exposing residents to lots of fluorescent light at night. Depression may be more common in urban areas than rural areas.

Eventually I realized I could solve the problem with “blue-blocker” glasses — i.e., orange-tinted glasses — that block blue light. (I use these, $7.) Now I could live normally, except for looking funny now and then. I wore the orange glasses a few minutes last night in a 7-11. Concerned about blue light from LED screens, I also wear them between 9 pm and 5 am when looking at a computer screen. Although compact fluorescents  (replacing ordinary light bulbs) have come along, and incandescent lights may be outlawed, my apartment is still all incandescent. The light from compact fluorescents has a lot of blue. Because I had no doubt that fluorescent light at night was bad because of the blue light, I never bothered to measure the effect of the blue-blocker glasses. This might have been a mistake.

Last June, at an evening meeting in under fluorescent lights, an Oakland woman saw me wearing orange glasses. She’d read about them on my blog. Sixty years old, she’d had poor sleep for decades. “It was a quick and easy thing I could try,” she told me. “Not a supplement or med.” She already took many of these.

The first evening, she put on the glasses at 8 pm. She’d had a lot of energy when she put them on, but 15 minutes later she fell asleep. She only slept for 30 minutes, but the incident suggested great promise. She got into a routine where she put them on when she got home, usually between 8 and 10 pm. The results:

All summer long, I slept better than I have slept in my entire life with these glasses. I haven’t had sleep problems until the last couple of weeks. Most nights I sleep through the night.  If I get up, it’s to go to the bathroom and I quickly go back to sleep. Completely unknown to me in the last couple of decades.

In other words, they helped a lot. It used to take her about an hour to fall asleep. She would take 3 tryptophan pills (= 2.5 g of tryptophan) at bedtime, and then 3 more every 20 minutes she was awake. She ended up taking 6-9 every night. After she started using the orange glasses, she continued the tryptophan but found almost never took 20 minutes or more to fall asleep.

Is she unusually sensitive to blue light? Does she get more blue light at night than the rest of us? Is it a placebo effect? Her house is full of compact fluorescents (she used to work on energy policy) and she spends a lot of time in front of a big (26-inch) computer monitor and a 46-inch TV. They may make things worse, but none of the three (compact fluorescents, big computer monitor, big TV) was around decades ago, when her sleep was also bad. The effects may go beyond blue-light elimination (“when I put them on my world is relaxed,” she said) but the notion that this is a placebo effect is contradicted by the many things she tried that didn’t help, not to mention the many experiments showing that blue light affects circadian rhythms.

I’d heard vaguely of sleep improvements. For example, Chris Kresser wrote “I’ve had many patients swear by these goggles”. Chris himself, however, rarely used them unless he was looking at electronic devices (like me). “If I notice that my sleep is starting to get funky, I’ll wear them,” he wrote, but otherwise not. I knew that I got the faces effect — which was huge — without needing to wear them at night, so I had assumed that ordinary (incandescent) evening light was harmless. However, this story, because the effect is so large, makes me question that assumption. I will try wearing them in the evening even when I am not looking at a computer screen.

Orange glasses improve sleep in a naturalistic experiment compared to other glasses. Subjects put on the glasses three hours before going to sleep.

23 Responses to “Orange Glasses at Night Improve Sleep”

  1. GeoffD Says:

    I’ve worn them for about 4 months now. They go on every night at 8:30. I’m sound asleep by 10:00. I sleep like a rock straight through. I had a 3 am wake up every night for at least the 3 full years prior to using the goggles. I read every night on an iPAd before bed. The benefit to the blue blocking is huge.

    Seth: That’s good to hear. I’ve been using them at all times recently, instead of just when looking at computer screens.

  2. Frankr Says:

    This is interesting news. I will try it out.

    Have you ever tried drinking a cup of milk a few hours before sleeping. I recommend it. I sleep better when I do that.

  3. Xav Says:

    There’s a very popular piece of free software called f.lux ( http://justgetflux.com ) which subtly changes your computer display so that it matches the time of day.

    Lots of programmers have mentioned on various forums I read that it helps with sleep.

  4. dearieme Says:

    We still use incandescents, having stocked up before the light bulb Nazis’ deadlines. In my office (before I retired) I kept the overhead fluorescents off as much as possible and worked with desk lamps.

    How about LED lights: do they have any ill effects?

    Seth: I too kept my office lights (fluorescent) off as much as possible.

  5. ChrisB Says:

    I get this effect from using “flux” on my Mac. This app turns the screen to a red cast at sunset, I go to the strongest setting of tungsten. It takes 15-20 minutes of web browsing in bed and I irresistably fall asleep. Been doing this for over a year. My evolutionary explanation – humans sitting around the campfire at night, safe to go to sleep…

  6. MaxPower Says:

    Hi Seth,
    For a couple of years now I’ve using a computer program called “f.lux” which auto adjusts the color temperature of your computer screen based on time of day and latitude/longitude coordinates. I find it incredibly helpful since I often work on my computer at night.

  7. Brian Toomey Says:

    Hi Seth,

    I’ve been using prescription orange glasses recently. I had bought cheap ones to wear over my prescription lenses. They helped my sleep, but the dual set of lens was annoying so I was very inconsistent with them.

    I have low blue light light bulbs in my house and have been putting them on at around 5pm and falling asleep around 11pm and sleeping better than ever before. I’ve only been doing this for 2 weeks, but I am very confident that they are improving my sleep.

    Seth: I didn’t know about low blue light bulbs…how interesting!

  8. Alex Says:

    Dearieme, regular LED bulbs are also more blue than incandescent bulbs. But you can buy LED bulbs that allow you to adjust the color. At home we are trying Philips Hue LED bulbs, which can be timed to shift colors on a schedule controlled from an iPad. We skew blue in the morning, bright white most of the day, orange at dusk, then red in the evening. The Hue system is spendy, $200 for three bulbs and a controller. There are also fairly inexpensive (about $20) LED bulbs that can be manually changed to different colors throughout the day via a little remote control. We started off with one over or kitchen table, and we liked it enough to try out the Hue bulbs.

    Seth: That’s great news. For everyone. I have been very worried that the new LED bulbs will be too blue. I didn’t know about adjustable ones.

  9. David Says:

    There’s a free software project out there called f.lux* that changes the color temperature of your computer screen over the course of the day. It adjusts based on your geographical location and time of day, so it can make the display redder as soon as the sun goes down outside. I’ve got my laptop set up to switch between 6400K during the daytime and 2300K (dim incandescent range) once the sun goes down.

    I don’t have much data on the effects yet. Although I have noticed that since I’ve started using f.lux I haven’t been on any code-until-3-AM benders.

    *http://justgetflux.com/

  10. John Kojis Says:

    I had read about this and got some cheap orange/yellow motorcycle glasses that were bifocals, perfect for evening screens with my older eyes. These worked well, I got sleepy an hour after I put them on, and in a way that I didn’t want to fight with to stay awake.

    I then decided to spring for a more expensive pair from lowbluelight.com, and they worked even better, perhaps placebo I thought since they cost 5 times as much. I compared the two in looking at a pure blue nightlight I had taken out of the bathroom, and the cheap ones blocked 90% of the light, made it look brown. When I put on the expensive ones, I had to check to see if the light was on, there was no light at all– I was shocked by the difference.

    I have no connection to the low blue light people, though they were very helpful on the phone.

  11. Sam Says:

    For computer monitors there is a program that runs in the background and automatically removes blue at dusk – F.lux – try it.

  12. Seth Roberts Says:

    “For computer monitors there is a program that runs in the background and automatically removes blue at dusk – F.lux – try it.”

    I did try it. I saw no difference. Whereas orange goggles do seem to make a difference.

  13. Sentinel Says:

    I use Shades (free download) instead of f.lux. It allows you to make the screen really, really red or amber, etc. (you can choose your tine color from a color palette; the screen ends up darker overall than with f.lux, and ‘blue’ more or less disappears from your field of vision).

    Note that if you run f.lux and Shades simultaneously in order to get some uber-effect, the screen starts flickering spasmodically.

  14. Richie Says:

    When I first started using f.lux several years ago, the program was only able to reduce the color temperature to 2700k, which is equivalent to an incandescent light bulb. At this setting I think it still emitted too much blue light to be effective. However, the recent f.lux update now allows for a color temperature as low as 1200k, which emits less blue light than a match flame. I find this setting to be as effective as wearing orange glasses.

    Stephan Guyenet had a similar experience with the new f.lux update that he shared in a recent post: http://www.dansplan.com/blog/2476-f-lux-a-free-computer-program-that-may-improve-your-sleep

    Seth: That’s good to know. I used it several years, haven’t tried the new version.

  15. vgm Says:

    My understanding is that blue light inhibits the production of melatonin via the pineal gland.

    I have been reading to an orange light bulb that I bought on Amazon before going to bed. It seems to be effective, but I do not know if it is real or placebo.

  16. Richard Sprague Says:

    My quick look at those low-blue light bulbs make me think they must be ordinary orange color bulbs, similar to what you put outside in order to have light without mosquitoes.

    Come to think of it, maybe that’s why those mosquito lights work: insects are attracted to blue lights because it stimulates the same thing it stimulates in our brains.

  17. Justin Irving Says:

    Seth, I’ve been using the similar (Uvex S1933X) glasses for about three months. Everything you’ve written is in line with my experience. I put them on when the sun sets and have them on for the rest of the night (unless I go out that is). Along with honey before bed and magnesium tablets, this has me sleeping like a dog (this is good).

    I’ve also switched to wearing Gunnar Optiks brand computer glasses at work, to hopefully cut down on excess blue light from the fluorescent lights and the monitors. I recommend these as well for people who have to work on computers all day.

  18. I’ve solved everything. | Koanic Soul Says:

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  19. Theragingwalrus Says:

    Short wavelengths and melatonin production suppression is old news, but is there also a reason to wear orange glasses if you take melatonin tablets? From looking at models of human circadian rhytm on pubmed, there’s still a lot of question marks, so science doesn’t seem to have found the answer, but maybe a commenter can fill us in here?

  20. Seth Roberts Says:

    “is there also a reason to wear orange glasses if you take melatonin tablets?”

    Yes. Because orange glasses probably come closer than melatonin tablets to reproducing the long-ago environment that shaped our sleep/wake system. Long ago humans got very little blue light at night — like what happens when you wear orange glasses. Long-ago humans did not ingest lots of melatonin. With orange glasses, it is much more obvious what the best dose is likely to be (no blue light at all). With melatonin, it isn’t easy to figure out the best dose.

    But there is no need to lean on theory, you can just try them. It might be easier to take melatonin tablets, I don’t know.

  21. Seth's Blog » Blog Archive » LEDs: Indoor Lighting of the Future Says:

    […] Orange Glasses at Night Improve Sleep […]

  22. the Revision Division Says:

    […] IMPROVE YOUR SLEEP with orange glasses. […]

  23. Suzanne Says:

    Seth thanks for the post and all the comments from readers. I’ve made a variation as I was too impatient to wait for my glasses:

    http://suzanneloomscreativity.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/working-with-insomnia-4.html