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Can't Fall Asleep? Try Bright Light Therapy

Sleep is important for good health, but it’s often an area of tremendous struggle for people with ADHD.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wrestled with insomnia. Like many people who have ADHD, my struggle starts with going to bed. I’d rather stay up late, doing something more interesting. Once I finally make it to bed, it’s hard to fall asleep. I toss and turn, struggling to fall asleep and stay that way. But at some point I do, because it’s hard to wake up in the morning. The impact of ADHD is felt around the clock.

I’ve attempted numerous methods over the years to address my sleep challenges, including avoiding electronics in the evening, going to bed earlier, reading when I couldn’t fall asleep, and taking supplements of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone. But nothing worked all of the time.

So when I heard a speaker explain that experiencing bright light daily could not only boost one’s mood, but also promote a healthy sleep-wake cycle, I was eager to try it. That very day I went home and dusted off an old “bright light,” to see if the theory would work. And I have been amazed. For the past month, I have been able to fall asleep around 10 p.m. Before that, I had been staying up until 2 a.m.!

Here’s why it works, according to Leslie Wade, a registered nurse and social worker who helps veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and its side effects, which include insomnia.

In the fall and winter, we are exposed to less light as the days grow shorter. Our internal clock responds by reducing the production of brain chemicals, such as serotonin and melatonin. When these chemicals get out of balance, it can affect our moods and sleep patterns.

Getting an adequate supply of light in the morning can help reset your inner clock and improve melatonin production at night. Melatonin is an antioxidant and hormone that naturally occurs in the body. Bright light therapy can support individuals with ADHD in the area of sleep onset that is the ability to shut our minds off in order to fall asleep. Many of us who are night owls resist going to bed early because we know that we won’t be able to fall asleep, anyway. For teens and young adults, ADHD can look more inattentive by day, and more hyperactive by night. Teens and young adults will often maintain a rigid schedule for school and then crash on the weekends, often sleeping until 11 a.m. or 12 noon. According to expert Wade, this is like putting your body through jet lag, each and every week. When sleep-wake cycles are normalized, we can not only fall asleep at night but also wake more easily in the morning, another struggle for people with ADHD. What can help?

1. Using a full-spectrum light box in the morning for 30 minutes while you are doing other daily activities, such as checking your e-mail or getting ready for work. You want to be sure that the device yields at least 10,000 lux, a measure of the light’s intensity in the space where you’re using it. Normal daylight is upwards of 200,000 lux.

2. Keep blue light to a minimum in the evening, especially one hour before bedtime. Blue light is extremely alerting and delays the release of melatonin. Electronic devices, such as televisions, computers, and tablets, are common sources of blue light.

3. Wear amber goggles to minimize your exposure to blue light in the evening.

4. Dim your lights in the evening and keep your bedroom dark. If you can see your hand one foot in front of you, then your space has too much light, according to Wade.

5. Hang light-resistant curtains in the bedroom.

6. Wear a sleep mask at night to keep out light.

7. If you do wake up in the night, be sure to keep the lights very low.

8. Create a night time routine that supports the transition to sleep.

To learn more about the connection between light and sleep, check out the excellent book by Michael Terman, Ph.D., and Ian McMahan, Ph.D., called Chronotherapy:Resetting your Inner Clock to Boost Mood, Alertness, and QualitySleep. ( amazon link)

Check out The Center for Environmental Therapeutics (

To find sleep products click here (

To discover additional resources on sleep, including a video library, click here ( )

As in any area of health, consult your health care provider as to the effective use of bright light therapy. While it’s generally safe, there are some conditions, such as Bipolar Disorder that require special supervision.

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