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Health, Science

Blue Lights Shown to Give a Brain Boost! But is a Better than Coffee?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

Can anything possibly beat the first coffee of the day?

It’s 6 am and the alarm sounds. Mornings aren’t a friendly place until you’ve had a coffee.

Loathed by some but loved by many more, caffienated drinks are the world’s most popular drug. Effective as a stimulant, a mood-booster and an learning-enhancer, caffeine is an indispensable part of modern-day living for 90% of Westerners. Coffee consumption has a variety of health benefits but is not without its problems; including addiction, withdrawal symptoms and adverse effects in children.

Now it seems, there could be a new kid on the block that threatens to topple the office coffee machine. It’s safe, legal and cheaper than a Starbuck’s. Move over Mr Drinks Dispenser and make way for invigorating power of the Blue Light Bulb!

The Stimulating Effects of Blue Light

In recent years, a flurry of discoveries have been made about the apparently wondrous effects of natural light: Good for health and well-being, I think we can all appreciate how a walk in the sun is good for lifting the spirits. Being designed for the outdoors, it would make sense that we humans perform best when exposed to natural light. Office planners have pondered the logistics of doing away with fluorescent lights to improve worker performance and happiness. Could more windows do away with the need for the mid-morning Diet Coke Break?

Doing what science does best, so-called ‘natural light’ has been dissected and analysed. Incredibly it seems that it is a particular blue part of the light spectrum that possesses a powerful and uplifting effect. Within the eye, a family of specialised sensitive cells exist to ‘see’ the blue colour of the sky (or 460nm, to be precise). When these recently discovered photo-receptors sense blue light, nervous impulses fire into the brain; waking us up, increasing alertness and boosting concentration.

PET Brain Scan of an Awake Brain: Blue Light of wavelength 460nm switches the brain into 'awake' mode

Researchers at the University of Greenwich decided to test the theory that working under ‘blue-enriched’ light bulbs would be better than normal office lighting. In a carefully designed cross-over study lasting two months, workers noticed the benefits of blue light – reporting that they felt happier, more alert, had less eye strain – and they even got more work done!

Blue Light vs. Coffee: Which is Better?

Being an ardent coffee-lover, it will take a lot to separate me from my morning espresso. Could blue lighting really offer anything that approaches the ‘pick-me-up’ that many of us use coffee (or tea / Coke / Red Bull) for? No-ones done a direct head-to-head comparison in practice but here’s a summary of what we do know:

Feel the power of the blue light...

  • Blue light reduces sleepiness and lowers melatonin in the blood (the body’s natural sleep-inducing hormone). Caffeine does the same.
  • Both blue light and coffee lift the mood, although blue light seems to have a longer lasting effect.
  • A caffeinated drink helps you to stay focused; 20 seconds of blue light boosts your IQ by 5 points!
  • Excess caffeine can cause irritability and impulsivity, blue light tends to reduce irritability.
  • Too many Red Bulls can give nasty side-effects and even be toxic. Overdoing it with too many blue light bulbs will give side-effects of jitteriness, headache, and nausea
  • Caffeine at night can disturb sleep; Blue light timed to coincide with the middle of the day can help sleep problems.
  • Caffeine improves performance in physical tasks. No one knows if blue light does.

I want some blue light bulbs!

It sounds pretty impressive for a light bulb, but I won’t be throwing out the espresso maker just yet. For one thing, coffee drunk in moderation has a plethora of health benefits, and well, it just tastes nice (alright, I’ll admit it – I’m an addict)!

And heaven only knows where to get one of those special light bulbs from… (suggestions accepted). To reap some blue-light benefit you need to use 17,000K “blue-enriched” lights.

So as I consider whether or not to start petitioning my employers into replacing our fluorescent tube lights, I think I’ll pour myself another cuppa… (although I do wonder what blue light AND caffeine would do)!

Thanks for reading – your comments and feedback are warmly welcomed!


Related Posts:

Coffee – The Virtues of Drinking it!

Are Britain’s Children Energy Drink Addicts?

Read More & References:

If you want to read more about caffeine, Wikipedia have a comprehensive entry, and JYI have a well-written piece.

The first article listed below is the office worker research investigating the effects of blue light performed through the University of Surrey.

Viola AU, James LM, Schlangen LJ, & Dijk DJ (2008). Blue-enriched white light in the workplace improves self-reported alertness, performance and sleep quality. Scandinavian journal of work, environment & health, 34 (4), 297-306 PMID: 18815716

Vandewalle, G., Maquet, P., & Dijk, D. (2009). Light as a modulator of cognitive brain function Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13 (10), 429-438 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.07.004

Lehrl, S., Gerstmeyer, K., Jacob, J., Frieling, H., Henkel, A., Meyrer, R., Wiltfang, J., Kornhuber, J., & Bleich, S. (2007). Blue light improves cognitive performance Journal of Neural Transmission, 114 (4), 457-460 DOI: 10.1007/s00702-006-0621-4

Smith, A. (2002). Effects of caffeine on human behavior Food and Chemical Toxicology, 40 (9), 1243-1255 DOI: 10.1016/S0278-6915(02)00096-0

Ursing C, Wikner J, Brismar K, & Röjdmark S (2003). Caffeine raises the serum melatonin level in healthy subjects: an indication of melatonin metabolism by cytochrome P450(CYP)1A2. Journal of endocrinological investigation, 26 (5), 403-6 PMID: 12906366

About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...


4 thoughts on “Blue Lights Shown to Give a Brain Boost! But is a Better than Coffee?

  1. By the way, the paper by Ursing et al (2003), seems to contradict your statement on caffeine and melatonin, just look at the title of the paper: “Caffeine raises the serum melatonin level in healthy subjects: an indication of melatonin metabolism by cytochrome P450(CYP)1A2.”
    To work as a sleepiness suppressant, caffeine would have to inhibit melatonin, like full spectrum light does.

    Posted by YS Gadbois | October 26, 2011, 2:16 pm
    • Yes, well spotted – I wrote this post quite a while ago, so I am trying to remember why I included that reference. Looking at it afresh – that paper does draw some interesting conclusions, I wonder why melatonin is increased after caffeine ingestion, when the body of literature shows it is a stimulant…? Any ideas?

      Posted by Stuart Farrimond | October 26, 2011, 2:39 pm
  2. http://www.overstock.com/Health-Beauty/Philips-goLITE-Adjustabe-BLU-Energy-Light-with-Timer/5865483/product.html?cid=133635

    £80 pretty steep for a light but in the interests of scientific investigation worth a trial?

    Is this not a strong enough blue, i couldn’t find all of the specifications on it

    Posted by Claire | January 19, 2012, 5:18 pm


  1. Pingback: Links – June 2, 2011 | C6-H12-O6 - June 3, 2011

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