If you live in a sunshine-filled part of the country, you may not pay much attention to the sun’s healing benefits, but those who live where sunlight is lacking may understand the impact light has on various medical issues, from depression to skin conditions.
Light therapy or phototherapy refers to a specific wavelength of light using lasers, light-emitting diodes, fluorescent lamps or full spectrum light devices. Light is administered in a medical practioner’s office for a specific condition and length of time and light boxes are available for home use.
The most common uses for light therapy may be in the treatment of psoriasis, sleep disorders, pain and some psychiatric disorders such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Other less common medical uses for light therapy include wound healing, inflammation and hair growth. Here’s a few of the most popular ways in which light is used in healing:
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression most often associated with the lack of light during the fall and winter months. It is very common and may be linked to low serotonin levels. “We often associate low serotonin with depression, however low serotonin can also cause anxiety, excessive worry and feeling overly stressed,” says Trudy Scott, certified food and mood expert in Cordova, Calif., and author of "The Antianxiety Food Solution – How the Foods You Eat Can Help you Calm Your Anxious Mind, Improve Your Mood and End Cravings" (New Harbinger).
“For many of my clients who are prone to having their serotonin levels decline in the winter months, if they don’t use light therapy, they end up with worsening depression and anxiety, and increased afternoon and evening sugar cravings.”
If your doctor recommends using light therapy, you’ll want to buy a light box. Prices vary from $100-$500. Some look like standing lamps while others are rectangular. You’ll typically sit two feet in front of the light box once or twice a day for up to 30 minutes with the light directed toward your face. Buy a box specifically for the treatment of SAD. Though you can buy light boxes over-the-counter, ask your doctor for a recommendation. A good box filters out dangerous UV light and may be covered by insurance with a doctor’s note.
Shift work can seriously disrupt a person's circadian rhythm, the normal sleep-wake cycle. Light therapy is used for shift work disorder as well as circadian rhythm disorders to help regulate a person's ability to wake and sleep.
“Our body produces sleep hormones that regulate sleep and wake,” explains Amy Korn-Reavis, RRT, RPSGT, a registered polysomnography technologist in Orlando, Fla. “
Sleep is regulated by our exposure to light. “Night shift workers do not have this exposure so using light therapy light will stimulate the brain to register that it is supposed to be awake.” A physician or sleep specialist should prescribe how long you sit under a light therapy box and the time of day to use it. Usually people who work nights use the light box in the evening before going to work. In the morning when shift workers need to sleep, they should wear sunglasses and minimize their light exposure with a sleep mask.
Chiropractors also use light therapy in the treatment of several disorders. “We have been using Low Level Laser Therapy (cold laser) for several years in our office,” says J G Moellendorf, DC, ND, LCP a chiropractor in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. It is used to reduce pain and inflammation, increase muscle function, and increase the rate of healing.
“We have used it to turn on muscles, some of which have not been functioning for several decades. Most remarkable though is what we are seeing in neurological disorders, particularly peripheral neuropathy, Parkinson's, and strokes,” says Moellendorf.
These light therapies use red and infrared light for the relief of pain, to accelerate healing and decrease inflammation. When the light source is placed against the skin, the photons penetrate and are absorbed by the mitochondria, the energy producing part of cells.
Light therapy or laser treatments also play a leading role at the dermatologist’s office. Blue light, infrared and photopneumatic light are all used in the treatment of acne and other skin conditions. Light therapy is being tested to treat hair loss, nail fungus and cellulite, and has been a mainstay in treating psoriasis and aging skin. And lasers, which emit a high beam of light, are used to treat fine lines and wrinkles in the ever popular anti-aging battle. Depending on the type of laser, these treatments can be quite pricey. Fractional laser resurfacing therapy, for instance, uses beams of energy light to bore tiny holes in the skin, which rev up collagen production, leading to less visible fine lines and wrinkles to the tune of up to $5,000.