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Light Therapy

Light and colour have been valued throughout history as sources of healing. Today, the therapeutic applications of light and colour are being investigated in major hospitals and research centres worldwide. Results indicate that full-spectrum, ultraviolet, coloured, and laser light can have therapeutic value for a range of conditions from chronic pain and depression to immune disorders and cancer.


Light has several well-proven uses in medicine. Regular sessions with a light box are an excellent remedy for the 'winter depression' known as seasonal affective disorder. Ultraviolet light is frequently used in the treatment of psoriasis. Natural light is a potential remedy for jaundice in newborns. And, for all of us, sunlight is a leading source of vitamin D. The list of ailments that light will not cure is, unfortunately, much longer. Despite claims to the contrary, there is no scientific evidence that light-coloured or otherwise-will cure cancer, arthritis, menstrual problems, Alzheimer's disease, high blood pressure, headaches, hyperactivity or AIDS. There is also little reason to believe that light will reduce stress, cure jet lag, relieve insomnia, improve fertility, speed healing, boost immunity, reduce cholesterol levels, increase the amount of oxygen in the blood or stimulate the thyroid gland.

Procedure of Treatment

Seasonal Affective Disorder: Bright light therapy is the treatment of choice for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The 'white' lights used in these treatments match the radiation would get from natural sunlight shortly after sunrise or before sunset, but do not contain any ultraviolet wavelengths. Most people take the treatments at home, although some receive therapy in an office or clinic. If you are being treated by a therapist, you may be asked to lie on a couch under a lamp that emits at least 2,500 lux of illumination-about half the brightness of full sunlight. To receive any benefit from this therapy, you must keep your eyes open during the entire session.

For home treatments, you will probably be advised to buy a light box. Most of these devices measure approximately 2 feet by 2 feet and enclose a full-spectrum or bright white light that is angled toward your face. While most of these lights are 2,500 lux, some may be as bright as 10,000 lux. If you do not wish to purchase a light box, you can use any high-intensity fluorescent lamp that does not emit ultraviolet rays. Place the box on a table or other flat surface where it is level with your eyes. You should sit about 18 inches from the box, facing the light source, but never looking directly at the bulb. (Some manufacturers recommend that you sit farther away. Be sure to read the directions on your box.) During the treatment session, you can read, eat, work, watch television or perform other activities, as long as you remain facing the light with your eyes open. (If you need to move around during the sessions, you might want to buy a light visor powered by rechargeable batteries.) Never wear sun glasses or goggles during treatment.

Treatment Time: Ranges from 15 minutes to three hours, depending on the brightness of the light source. If you use a 2,500-lux source, you will need two hours per session. A 5,000-lux light requires 30 to 90 minutes; a 10,000-lux source, 25 to 45 minutes.
Treatment Frequency: Therapy usually begins in the fall and lasts until early spring. It is best to have your sessions in the early morning or at dusk. One session per day is usually sufficient, although some therapists recommend twice-daily sessions for the first few days, or until your condition improves. You can probably take an occasional day off without any problem.

Other Conditions: If you are receiving light therapy for skin conditions such as psoriasis or vitiligo, your doctor will probably give you a drug called psoralen one or two hours before your session. During therapy, your entire body will be exposed to ultraviolet light. A series of 30 sessions is usually required over a period of 10 weeks. (A similar approach to skin cancer, using light-activated drugs, is currently under investigation).

For jaundice in newborns, intense full-spectrum light (or sunlight) is the recommended treatment. Full-spectrum lights, which are now being installed in many offices, factories, and other workplaces, have also been recommended for ailments ranging from migraines to premenstrual syndrome, but have yet to be conclusively proven effective for anything but jaundice.

For a wide variety of other conditions, ranging from pain to glandular problems, some physicians advocate treatments with coloured light. There is no scientific proof that such treatments will work, but if you decide to experiment, you will have several options. In one form of therapy, the practitioner directs light at a specific part of your body with a quartz-tipped 'crystal flashlight'. In another, you sit under a bulb that diffuses coloured light around you. Treatments dubbed 'syntonic optometry employ specialized machines such as a Lumatron® to flash coloured light into your eyes at the rate of 2 to 16 beams per second. If you are being treated with a Lumatron, each session will last approximately 25 minutes. The time needed for other forms of light therapy varies widely. For localized pain, one practitioner recommends 2 five-minute applications of red light to the site, followed by 10 to 15 seconds of light on the area around it. You will receive two or three treatments daily for the first week, then twice daily sessions for a second week.


Light has been used as a medicine for millennia. In the 6th century BC, Charaka, an Indian physician, treated a number of diseases with sunlight. Hippocrates and other ancient Greek physicians had their patients recuperate in roofless buildings, where they could soak up the rays of the sun. By the 1890s, European sanatoriums were prescribing incandescent electric 'light baths' to treat many physical and psychological conditions, and Niels Finsen, a Danish physician, was using ultraviolet light to treat tuberculosis.

Light therapy as we know it today appeared in the 1980s, when doctors realized that people deprived of light sometimes developed symptoms such as depression, lethargy, inability to concentrate, and difficulty in sleeping. Researchers speculated that the problems stemmed from a disruption of the patient's circadian rhythm, an internal 24-hour 'dark-light cycle clock' that governs the timing of hormone production, sleep, body temperature, and other functions.

Circadian rhythm is regulated by the pineal gland, which, in turn, is controlled by the presence or absence of external light. During the first hours of darkness, the pineal gland produces the hormone melatonin, a substance that promotes sleep and, according to some researchers, may even strengthen the immune system. When you disturb the circadian rhythm by sleeping during the day, travelling across time zones, or getting insufficient exposure to light, your health begins to suffer. The two most striking examples of the phenomenon are jet lag and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD strikes four to six of every 100 people, most of them women over 20 years of age, although children also develop the disorder.

The victims, who usually live in northern climates, generally feel fine during the spring, summer and early fall, when the days are long, but become sleepy, gain weight, crave carbohydrates, and grow unhappy as the days get shorter. Some develop insomnia, lose their sex drive, grow irritable and moody, and find it impossible to complete tasks. Children may become hyperactive or have problems learning and concentrating.

To reset the body's internal clock, researchers tried giving SAD patients regular doses of full-spectrum or bright white light from late autumn to early spring. They speculated that the extra light would suppress overproduction of melatonin (the suspected cause of SAD) and keep the melatonin cycle 'in time with the real world'. This theory was never substantiated, but the success of the treatments-for whatever reason-was indisputable.

Other experiments with light therapy have not, unfortunately, worked out as well. Light has been tried for a wide variety of ailments, but with little documented success. For example, one Israeli study claimed to show that a light-tipped probe inserted into the nasal passages of allergy patients could provide at least partial relief of symptoms. The study, however, did not meet critical physicians' demands scientific proof. Similarly, use of light therapy to cure certain types of cancer is still awaiting conclusive validation. Support is also lacking for the theory that coloured light can eliminate problems in different parts of the body-for example, that flashing opaque white or violet light can reduce stress and relieve pain; or that red light can remedy ailments ranging from endocrine problems to depression, impotence, headaches, stomach aches and diabetes.

Coloured-light therapies such as syntonic optometry have never been scientifically verified. Although the coloured beams striking the eyes are supposed to regulate various body functions by stimulating corresponding areas of the brain, there is no evidence that this actually occurs. There is disagreement, too, over exactly how such therapies might work. When light enters the eye, brightness-and colour-sensitive cells in the retina convert it to electrical impulses that travel up the optic nerve to the brain. According to one theory, these impulses stimulate the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that regulates such automatic functions as sleep, body temperature, digestion, moods, sexual function and the immune system. Other theories suggest that light may affect other parts of the brain, such as the cerebral cortex which governs creativity, learning, and memory; the cortex which governs movement; and the brain stem which controls balance.

Critics of light therapy point out that none of the theories has been scientifically verified, and dismiss the whole issue. Scientists also reject the claim that too much artificial light and too little natural light prevents the body from absorbing adequate nutrients. (Advocates of light therapy charge that sunglasses, windows and pollution are reducing our exposure to the full spectrum of natural sunlight, and that indoor lighting-usually about 500 lux-is insufficient to compensate for the loss of the 50,000 lux supplied by sunlight.) although it is clear that exposure to sunlight increases the body's supply of Vitamin D-a necessary for healthy teeth and bones-critics say that its benefits stop here.

Who Should Avoid This Therapy?

Light therapy is not advisable if your skin or eyes are highly sensitive to light. Avoid it, too, if you have any type of manic-depressive disorder. If you are taking any medications, you might want to check with your doctor or pharmacist before beginning light therapy. A wide variety of drugs can increase your sensitivity to light.


Overexposure to ultraviolet rays can cause skin cancer and may contribute to premature ageing of the skin. Other possible side-effects of light therapy may include a 'hyper' feeling, mild headache, trouble sleeping, sore eyes and other eye problems. If you are taking light therapy for skin cancer, you may find that the dye often used in these treatments increases your sensitivity to sunlight.