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"The entrance of thy words giveth light (Psalm 119:130)."

Using Light as Therapy

The following article was excerpted from Dr. Andrew Weil's Self Healing 2003 Annual Edition. Used by permission

In my winters at Harvard Medical School, I often woke up in darkness and came home past nightfall. Not seeing the light of day made me feel out of sorts. Lack of sun isn't a problem for me these days in Tucson, but it is for many people. Natural light has beneficial effects on both bodies and minds. During times when regular exposure to it is limited, light-box therapy provides an artificial source that simulates sunlight and may help treat health concerns ranging from depression to insomnia to eating disorders.

Light therapy (or phototherapy) involves the use of light boxes, ultraviolet (UV) light, or colored light. When using light boxes, patients sit at eye level with the light source for a prescribed amount of time each day. In UV light therapy, patients are exposed to bands of UVA or UVB light. And colored light therapy may direct beams of red, violet, or blue light on various parts of the body to stimulate healing. It has been around for a while, but it is not well studied. Below I'll illuminate some of the latest uses of light therapy.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). For some people in northern latitudes, the diminishing light of late autumn brings on this type of depression that lasts through early spring. Light-box therapy is the best-studied and now standard treatment for the fatigue, mood changes, and carbohydrate cravings associated with SAD, and I've found it to be effective. Daily exposure to high-intensity artificial light (10 to 20 times brighter than indoor lighting), typically in the morning at home, seems to work by resetting the body's internal clock, its circadian rhythms. It may reduce daytime levels of melatonin, the hormone that controls sleep and wake cycles, as well as increase brain chemicals that brighten mood. These days, light boxes usually emit white light and filter out damaging UV rays. Patients are advised to keep their eyes open, but not look directly at the light. Light therapy may ease SAD symptoms faster than medication and has few side effects, but you may not be able to use it if your eyes or skin are especially sensitive to light.

Other therapeutic uses. Light boxes (which cost between $200 and $500) have only been in use since the '80s for SAD, so research is just beginning to shed light on their other potential health benefits. So far, most studies have been small and preliminary. Some early evidence has found that morning bright-light therapy may be a valuable nondrug treatment for pregnant women with depression, and Canadian researchers are studying its use for postpartum depression. It has also been successfully used to treat women with severe premenstrual syndrome, and in small studies has been shown to reduce binging and purging and improve mood in bulimics. Plus, light box therapy seems promising as a treatment for non-seasonal depression (often when combined with antidepressant drugs), jet lag, and insomnia related to circadian rhythms. It's being investigated to ease sleep disturbances and agitation linked with dementia and may also improve sleep and alertness in night-shift workers. One good source of light boxes is Light for Health (www.lightfor health.com; 800-468-1104).

UV light therapies. Unlike light-box therapy, UV light therapy is done with specialized equipment in a health facility, not as a form of self-care at home. This approach can help clear up psoriasis and other skin conditions or even jaundice in newborns. It may also help relieve symptoms in people with lupus, who are sensitive to sunlight but may benefit from exposure to a special light box emitting UVA light.

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