How Light Therapy Works
Light therapy, also known as bright light therapy and phototherapy, is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy designed to help patients suffering from symptoms of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) but also used to treat some sleep disorders. The idea behind light therapy is that there are certain chemical benefits that a person experiences while exposed to natural light (sunlight), including positive mood shifts and an increase in energy. Exposure to natural light is acheieved with a special light fixture called a light therapy box, which blocks ultraviolet light (UV) and protects the eyes and skin while the patient is in treatment. Patients are usually asked to sit next to or work next to the light therapy box in the early morning, right when they wake up or for about 30 to 60 minutes per day at a regular time.
Light Therapy for SAD or Depression
SAD is mainly characterized by a cyclical state of depression that comes each year near the colder months, during autumn and winter. The philosophy behind light therapy for SAD, then, is that replicating natural light and exposing the patient to it on a regular basis during times when natural light is not as readily available is thought to improve symptoms of depression and make the patient more relaxed overall. Patients with severe or clinical depression may use light therapy in conjunction with their regular anti-depressants or even use light therapy as a partial replacement for medication to lower their ant-depressant dosage. Many patients who feel concerned about side-effects of anti-depressants would rather practice light therapy, which has few side-effects. Furthermore, depressed pregnant women, or recent mothers who are breast-feeding, who are not allowed to take anti-depression medication may turn to right light therapy as an alternative form of sleep disorder treatment.
Light Therapy to Treat Sleep Disorders
Although light therapy as an effective form of treatment for sleep disorders and other disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dementia and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is still debated among professionals—the general uplifting and regulating effect of bright light exposure is thought to indirectly help many conditions. Light therapy has even been suggested as a way to help people recover from the symptoms of jet lag and tiredness associated with taking the night shift at work.
However, when using light therapy to treat a mood or behavioral disorder, it is essential to consult a professional. Although the side-effects (headaches, strain in the eyes, irritability, dryness in the mouth and trouble sleeping) are few and generally do not last a long time, they can be dangerous if your condition is severe. Bipolar patients, for example, have been known to experience manic episodes after regular exposure to light. Some patients are also pre-disposed to certain skin conditions that may make them overly sensitive to the bright light therapy. Contact a sleep specialist if you are interesting in trying light therapy to treat a sleep disorder such as insomnia or delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS).