Could a smart light bulb help reset your body clock?

TUO's bulb is intended to help energize users in the morning and calm them at night.
CNN  — 

After finishing a film on Netflix and taking one final scroll through your Facebook feed, you go to bed. It’s much harder to switch off your mind than a screen, though, and after tossing and turning, you finally drift off. When your alarm goes off, it feels like you barely closed your eyes.

Sound familiar? It’s more common than you might think. According to the American Sleep Association, more than a third of adults in the US report sleeping less than seven hours a night – the bare minimum suggested for optimum health.

For many people, our busy modern lives have put the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle – called the circadian rhythm – out of whack. But new research might help.

Earlier this year, scientists at the University of Washington identified how cells in the eye respond to different colored lights, signaling the part of the brain that regulates our circadian rhythm. Now, US company TUO has used those findings to create an LED light bulb it says can help energize you in the morning and calm you at night.

Why circadian health matters

The circadian rhythm is an internal body clock that runs in approximately 24-hour cycles, says Joey Chan, associate professor of psychiatry at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Everyone’s circadian rhythm is different, ranging from “morning larks” to “night owls,” she says.

While the circadian rhythm is responsible for sleep, Chan says it also “affects our mood, our neural connections, our memory, physical performance, and the cardiometabolic functions.”

But modern living, particularly for those in cities, has disrupted this internal clock. The circadian rhythm is triggered by “environmental stimulus,” says Chan, the most important of which is light. Exposure to light suppresses melatonin – sometimes referred to as the sleep hormone.

Our eyes are most sensitive to blue light, says Chan – the kind emitted from TV, phone and laptop screens, which is why watching TV or using your phone before bed can impact your sleep – but it turns out this isn’t the only light driving the circadian rhythm.

Research from the University of Washington found that long wavelength orange and yellow light, along with contrasting violet light – the colors occurring naturally at sunrise and sunset – are also important.

Chan says this demonstrates our eyes are “not only for vision,” as the colors and not just light itself play a part in stimulating the circadian system.

The university has licensed technology based on the findings to TUO, which has created a smart bulb that uses different types of light to either wake-up or wind-down your body clock.

TUO co-founder and CEO David Basken says that by discreetly alternating between different light wavelengths, the bulb can stimulate the circadian system.

Users connect to the $59 smart bulb with an app and set it to suit their schedule and sleep preferences. The bulb creates a lighting schedule and runs through three modes each day: wake, active, and calm, with an extra “regular” setting. The bulb warmth or coolness and brightness can be set for any of the three modes, says Basken – all while appearing as a regular white light.

TUO's bulb connects to an app, which creates a schedule customized to the user.

A growing sleep health market

Circadian lights aren’t a new idea. Circadian Optics specializes in light therapy lamps for mood disorders, while electronics company Philips has a “sunrise alarm clock.” Even NASA has tested a specialized circadian light schedule to help astronauts on board the International Space Station. Circadian health is part of a growing trend in sleep health, a market estimated to be worth up to $40 billion in 2017.

TUO says most circadian lights are based on blue light, whereas its bulb focuses on changes in light color. For instance, in the morning TUO’s bulb mimics the light pulses of sunrise to wake the circadian system.

“We’re really starting to think about how we consume light,” says Basken. He highlights that “integrated healthy lighting” concepts are already being incorporated into luxury property, but haven’t reached the mass market yet.

This is why TUO opted for a light bulb, rather than a lamp or lighting fixture, he says: “It’s just a light bulb. You put it into a fixture that you like, and everyone can get access to it.” Using the bulb in the areas you spend the most time in the morning and evening is a good start, says Basken.

Of course, a light isn’t a cure-all, says Chan. She emphasizes the personal nature of circadian health and the importance of “regular circadian cues” – a consistent waking and sleeping habit – as well as getting lots of natural light.

But creating a light-sensitive environment in our homes doesn’t hurt, and while it won’t completely stop the effects of TV or phone light, Basken claims creating an ambient setting with circadian bulbs can help “mitigate the effects.”

Basken hopes that TUO’s bulb will help people get back in touch with the natural rhythm of their body, and lead a lifestyle more in sync with their biological clock.

“If we’re not going to live outdoors under the sun and stars, then we have to think about what that means to our biology,” says Basken. “Light has to be an ingredient all day, for the best results. That’s really where we’re going with it.”