Colors have real effects on people, and it’s about time we start taking advantage of it.

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It was about a month into quarantine, and I was sitting in my living room feeling down. Nothing in particular was wrong. I just felt “off.”

I looked around the room. I had painted it a neutral blue-gray when I moved in. At the time I found that color soothing, but now the walls felt drab.

In fact, everything about the room felt sad. All my furniture and decor were shades of blues and grays. The bright fluorescent ceiling light didn’t make anything feel better, either.

To try and perk myself up, I went for a walk. The sunlight and trees made me feel a little better.

I didn’t think about the experience again until a month later, when I received a new blush and gold lamp I’d ordered. When I plugged it in, the room instantly felt warmer and cheerier.

That’s when it dawned on me that simply being around warmer colors, be that a sunny day in my backyard or a room painted with bright shades, made me feel just a little bit better.

It left me wondering how color and light can influence mood and health. That’s how I first heard about color therapy.

Also known as chromotherapy, color therapy is based on the idea that color and colored lights can help treat physical or mental health. According to this idea, they cause subtle changes in our moods and biology.

Color therapy has a long history. Records indicate that color and light therapy were once practiced in ancient Egypt, Greece, China, and India.

“Our relationship with color has evolved alongside our cultures, religions, and lives,” says color therapy expert Walaa Al Muhaiteeb.

“Color as the manifestation of light held divine status to many. Egyptian healers wore breastplates of blue to mark their sacredness. In Greece, Athena wore a golden robe to signify her wisdom and holiness,” says Al Muhaiteeb.

Today, color therapy is largely seen as a complementary or alternative medicine therapy.

For example, spas such as Sunlighten offer chromotherapy saunas and claim they provide benefits to their clients.

Sauna guests can choose blue light if they want to relax or feel calm. They can choose pink light if they want to detoxify.

Al Muhaiteeb says she uses color therapy to help her clients release anxiety, ease depression, and better connect with themselves through color workshops, color breathing exercises, meditations and one-on-one sessions.

The truth is, science-backed research on color therapy is still pretty limited.

It’s a very new field of research, at least in the medical world. Many researchers told me they’ve faced resistance when trying to get funding for studies involving color therapies.

“I’ve been met with a lot of resistance when I proposed light as a therapeutic approach,” says Mohab Ibrahim, PhD, MD, associate professor of anesthesiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Tucson.

“People would say, why not work on drugs? It’ll be easier to get published. And to a certain extent, that’s true,” he says.

Still, Ibrahim is committed to his work.

“Colors have certain biological and psychological effects on people, and I think it’s about time we start taking advantage of it,” he says.

As of right now, medical science can’t confirm whether color or colored lights will treat your physical ailments or help improve your mental health.

However, there’s some evidence to back up the idea that colored lights can have effects on our bodies, our pain levels, and our moods.

For example, light therapy is used to treat seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that typically appears during fall and winter.

Blue light phototherapy is commonly used in hospitals to treat neonatal jaundice, a condition affecting babies. The condition causes high levels of bilirubin in the blood, making the skin and eyes turn yellow.

During treatment, babies are placed under blue halogen or fluorescent lamps while they sleep so that their skin and blood can absorb the light waves. These light waves help them eliminate bilirubin from their systems.

In addition, research suggests that during the day, blue light can improve:

  • alertness
  • attention
  • reaction time
  • general mood

At night, however, blue light can cause us harm by disrupting our biological clocks, or circadian rhythms. This is because it suppresses melatonin, the hormone that helps our bodies sleep.

There’s also some evidence that viewing blue light at night could possibly raise the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, though this hasn’t been confirmed.

Ibrahim has been researching the effects of green light on migraines and fibromyalgia pain.

He began this research when his brother, who suffers from frequent headaches, reported feeling better after spending time in his garden with trees and other greenery.

While Ibrahim’s research isn’t yet published, he claims his results are very encouraging. Participants are reporting fewer migraines per month and less severe fibromyalgia pain after 10 weeks of daily exposure to green LED light, he says.

“So far, many people reported benefits from the green light, and no one has reported any side effects,” he says.

“I doubt that green light therapy will replace typical pain medications, but if we’re able to reduce pain medications by even 10 percent, that’s a big accomplishment,” he says. “It could have strong ramifications [on] the future of pain control.”

Meanwhile, Padma Gulur, MD, professor of anesthesiology and population health at Duke University School of Medicine, has been researching the effect of color-filtering glasses on pain levels.

Her early results suggest that green wavelengths decrease acute and chronic pain.

Considering the opioid epidemic and the side effects of many pain medications, Gulur says there’s an urgent need for non-pharmacological options to help manage pain.

“We’re still in the early stages… but [green light] could mean a reasonably safe and effective alternative to medications that helps patients with their pain,” she explains.

While the research is still in process, there’s nothing wrong with using color in small ways to boost your mood or improve your sleep.

Protect your rhythm

To keep your phone or computer’s blue lights from interfering with your circadian rhythm, turn them off several hours before bed.

There’s software that can help, like Flux. Flux changes the color of your computer’s light depending on the time of day, triggering warm colors at night and sunlight colors in the daytime.

You can also try anti-blue light glasses, which protect from light emitted by your computer, smartphone, tablet, and TV screens. Be sure to do your research before buying them to make sure that the glasses you pick actually block blue light.

Shop for anti-blue light glasses online.

Nighttime light

If you need a nightlight, use dim red lights. According to research, red light may affect circadian rhythm less than blue light.

Shop for red light nightlights online.

Outdoor breaks

If you’re having trouble focusing or staying alert, take a walk outside where you can get plenty of natural blue light. Interacting with green plants may also be a natural way to ease stress.

Decorate with colors

You can also do what I did and use color in your home to help boost your mood. After all, interior designers have been recommending that for years.

“In the world of interior paint, color therapy is simply used by selecting a wall color that speaks to you personally, crafting a mood you’re wanting to achieve for the space,” says Sue Kim, color marketing manager for paint company Valspar.

“Colors that bring you calm and balance are great for bathrooms and bedrooms, typical spaces used for relaxation,” says Kim.

“Vibrant, energizing hues are incorporated in kitchens and dining rooms, spaces that are vibrant and used for socialization.”

Experiment

There’s also nothing wrong with visiting spas or getting yourself fun LED lights for your home. Even painting your nails or dyeing your hair can be a kind of color therapy.

Ibrahim is quick to emphasize that his research is still very preliminary. He worries that people may use green lights to treat their headaches before consulting a doctor. While he hasn’t seen any side effects, he still has a lot more research to do.

If you have eye problems, he encourages you to check with your ophthalmologist.

Ibrahim also cautions that if you suddenly start getting severe migraines or headaches that you didn’t have before, you should see your doctor to rule out any underlying health conditions.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about how colors and light affect our health, but researchers are uncovering more information.

In the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with using color around your home if that lifts your spirits.


Simone M. Scully is new mom and journalist who writes about health, science and parenting. Find her at simonescully.com or on Facebook and Twitter.