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What Is Light Therapy?
Light therapy has been used to treat a variety of ailments and is presently being studied for its effectiveness at treating illnesses. Sometimes referred to as phototherapy or heliotherapy, light therapy consists of sitting in front of a special light that emits rays that are close to that of natural sunlight. It is often used to treat certain ailments such as seasonal depression.
Our Biological Processes Depend on Light Cycles
When our natural clocks get out of sync, it can impact our sleep cycle, cognitive performance, and/or our mood. Dr. Schwartz, assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School, states that while our ancestors spent most of their time outdoors, modern people do not. The majority of our lives are spent indoors and under artificial light. That's why phototherapy is a common treatment for seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.) or what some refer to as the winter blues (what people feel when the days of winter are shorter).
Light Exposure Affects Melatonin and Serotonin
The reasons why phototherapy is beneficial is not entirely known. However, alterations in light exposure change levels of melatonin and serotonin which are both hormones that regulate mood and sleep. The rays of the sun or light are also linked to vitamin D production.
Human beings evolved under the day-night cycle. It is the natural time-keeper that sets our biological clocks within our brains and organs throughout the body.
— Richard Schwartz MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School
What Conditions Does Light Therapy Treat?
Phototherapy may help reduce symptoms of the following conditions:
- Seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.)
- Types of depression that don't occur seasonally
- Jet lag
- Sleep disorders (adjusting to nighttime work schedules)
- Parkinson's Disease
"In many cases, light therapy can replace medication for people with seasonal and nonseasonal depression, bipolar depression, and depression during pregnancy. In other cases, adding light therapy can boost the effects of drugs alone.
— Michael Terman, PhD, Columbia Univeristy Medical Center
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Studies on Light Therapy and P.T.S.D.
There was a study done on 16 soldiers who had P.T.S.D. from serving in Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom. One group of 8 soldiers received 10,000 lux (units of light) for a time frame of 30 minutes a day, while the placebo group of 8 soldiers received fake light treatment via a negative ion generator that was inactivated.
The study was designed to specifically target sleep disturbance because going without sleep causes anxiety, increases depression, and worsens P.T.S.D. symptoms. The study confirmed that the soldiers who were exposed to real phototherapy showed a huge improvement in their sleep compared to the placebo group. The light also alleviated symptoms associated with P.T.S.D. and depression.
Results of this ongoing study show significant effects of bright light on disruptive nocturnal behaviors associated with combat P.T.S.D., as well as positive effects of bright light therapy on P.T.S.D. symptom severity.
— Shannon Cornelius, PhD, a graduate research assistant at University of South Carolina
Video: Does Light Therapy Work?
Emerging Research in this Field
Light therapy was practiced by several ancient cultures such as Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, and Ancient Rome. In our modern times, scientific research is being conducted to further reveal its application in treating diseases, illnesses, and conditions.
Research indicates that light therapy is beneficial for the treatment of insomnia, A.D.H.D., dementia, and that it helps to improve motor function for people with Parkinson's Disease. Some lights are used for skin disorders as well.
The full effect and benefit of phototherapy is still unknown, however, it is something that is being enthusiastically studied.
Disturbed sleep is known to interact with depression and anxiety in a vicious cycle. By reducing the severity and occurrences of sleep disturbances, it may be possible to reduce the severity of symptoms such as anxiety and depression.
— Shannon Corenlius, PhD
- Bright Light Therapy Improves Sleep Disturbances in Soldiers With Combat PTSD
Study suggests that bright light therapy may be an effective treatment for combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Mayo Clinic
Light therapy: Explore light therapy as a treatment for seasonal affective disorder and other conditions.
- The Benefits of Light Therapy | Everyday Health
Not getting enough light can impact your health in surprising ways.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.