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How to Use Smart Bulbs for Better Sleep

Consumer Reports 3/16/2023 Daniel Wroclawski

Brightening up your space is as important as dimming it

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Not just mood lighting, the glow of smart bulbs just might help you sleep.

By Daniel Wroclawski

There’s no shortage of tools and tricks to help you get a better night’s sleep. With the sleep aids market valued at $64 billion in 2021, many products we don’t typically associate with sleep are now vying for a share of the profits.

Meditation apps are chock full of sleep wind-downs. Fitness trackers and smartwatches now track your sleep as assiduously as they do your steps. Heck, even Google smart speakers can determine when you’re snoring. It’s no surprise, then, that in recent years, lightbulbs have joined the fray, too.

Yes, the humble lightbulb—the thing invented so that you can do whatever you want other than sleep—is now claimed to help you get more of it. Known as smart bulbs, these devices work by adjusting their color temperature, their intensity, or both, to help you feel more awake during the day and sleepier at night.

There’s science behind this: Light is the primary driver of our circadian clock. Bright morning sunlight signals wakefulness. When blue-light-sensitive receptors in our eyes detect it, a signal is sent to our brain to halt the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone—so we, in turn, feel revitalized and ready to take on the day. By contrast, the absence of light conveys sleep. As we move closer to bedtime, melatonin rises again, making us feel drowsy. But interference from blue light, such as from our phones and laptops, can suppress melatonin. When we minimize blue light—by putting away our devices, by dimming our LED bulbs—melatonin rises as it should, so we feel ready to sleep.

With this in mind, smart bulb makers have created bulbs to, as the folks behind the Philips Hue bulb say on their site, “harness the power of light and use it to support your wellbeing.” To do this, smart bulbs offer “circadian lighting” settings or wake-up/bedtime settings. The majority of brands offer both. 

With circadian-lighting settings, you can adjust the color temperature of the bulb throughout the day to mimic the sun, progressing from warm/red hues in the morning (like sunrise), to cool/blue hues during the day, then back to warm/red hues at night (like sunset).

In “wake-up” mode, the bulbs act like sunrise alarm clocks, gradually brightening as the sun would at dawn into the morning hours. If the bulbs have circadian-lighting functionality, a warm glow would unfold into a crisp, bright light. 

In “bedtime” mode, the bulbs gradually dim. Again, if combined with the circadian-lighting feature, they’ll eventually shift to warm red hues and turn off over a set window of time to help you fall asleep. It’s the sunrise alarm clock in reverse.

Can Smart Bulbs Actually Improve Your Sleep?

It all sounds fantastic—the idea of a programmable sunrise and sunset in the comfort of your own home. But it takes more than appropriate lighting to channel a great night’s sleep—it takes good sleep habits, the right bedroom environment, and a decent mattress, just to name a few factors.

What’s more, experts aren’t entirely convinced that the color temperature of light might actually have a significant effect on your circadian clock. And while the intensity of light has a real impact throughout the day, indoor lighting just isn’t as bright as sunlight, says Jamie Zeitzer, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University’s Center for Sleep & Circadian Sciences. 

In fact, he says one of the best things you can do to foster better sleep is free: Simply make sure you spend at least an hour outside in the sun, even on an overcast day. The contrast of going from bright sun to the much dimmer lighting in our homes at night will help your circadian rhythm, he says.

Still, Zeitzer says that the bulbs are worth trying if you have trouble falling asleep. “That’s the big thing about sleep. There’s no single solution,” he says. “It’s what works for an individual.”

© Provided by Consumer Reports

With smart bulbs, your lamp can also be a sunrise alarm clock.

Photo: Pony Wang/Getty Images

How to Make Smart Bulbs Work for You

According to Zeitzer, while smart bulbs aren’t necessarily going to make you sleep better, they might enable you to sleep better. “It’s linguistically kind of subtle, but it’s an important distinction,” he says.

Smart bulbs can enable better sleep by helping you improve upon behaviors that directly impact sleep. For instance, a gradually dimming bulb in the living room might act as a reminder for you to head to bed, instead of staying up past midnight, staring at a blue-lit screen. Used as a wake-up light, a bulb’s blazing-white glow might persuade you to start your day early enough to take a brisk morning walk, as opposed to repeatedly hitting snooze on a conventional clock as you fall back asleep in the dark. (Exercise, like morning sun exposure, is good for sleep, too.)

How to Set Up Smart Bulbs

As with any healthy habit, keep a consistent routine and give it at least a couple of weeks in order to see if it works for you. Here’s how to get started.

Look for bulbs labeled as offering circadian lighting and bedtime/wake-up features. The following options provide both.

For reviews of each bulb, see CR’s guide to the best smart lightbulbs.

Place the bulbs in the appropriate rooms. These should include the rooms you spend the most time in, such as the living room, kitchen, and home office. To make use of the wake-up and bedtime options, install a smart bulb in your bedroom, too. (For the Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance, you’ll have to hook up the Hue bridge to your router, too.)

Select the circadian lighting setting on the bulb’s app. It will usually be listed in the Automations, Scenes, or Routines section. Some apps have multiple sections with these names, so you might have to do some digging. The feature could have names like Circadian Rhythm, Natural Light, or Day & Dusk Schedule. Once selected, you can choose the bulb(s) you want to use it on. Then activate the setting. Simply leave your lights in this mode and the app will do the rest, gradually changing your bulb’s colors throughout the day. Or you can program this mode to activate at a set window of time each day—say, only in the morning.

Select the bedtime and wake-up mode settings in the bulb’s app. These will usually be listed in the Automations, Scenes, or Routines section. They could have names like Wake-Up and Bedtime, Wake Up With Light, Go to Sleep, or Sleep Routines. Select the mode you want to use (bedtime or wake-up) and choose the bulb(s) to run it on. Set the time you want the mode to trigger at—your typical bedtime and/or morning alarm time—and activate the automation. Heavy sleepers might also pair the feature with an audible alarm that goes off 5 to 10 minutes later. This will allow the light to start waking you up, with the audible alarm finishing the job if the light can’t.

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2023, Consumer Reports, Inc.

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