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Light Therapy

Light Therapy, Light Therapy Lamp, LED Light Therapy, SAD Light Therapy

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What is Light Therapy?

Light therapy is a way to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD) by exposure to artificial light. During light therapy, you sit or work near a device called a light therapy box. The box gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. Light therapy is thought to affect brain chemicals linked to mood, easing SAD symptoms. Using a light therapy box may also help with other types of depression, sleep disorders and some other conditions. Light therapy is also known as bright light therapy or phototherapy.

Background and History of Light Therapy

Many people will be surprised to learn that light therapy has been used in clinical settings for almost 60 years. Since the 1950s, medical practitioners have used light panels to treat patients with depression, sleeplessness, and other mood disorders.

In the early days, to receive the healing properties of bright light, patients had to go into hospitals, doctors’ offices, or convalescent spas and stand in front of a wall length panel of light. Treatments were generally long, up to several hours. The results were good but use was limited. There was innovation in the field in the 1980s, light therapy devices were smaller boxes, but they were not attractive and not widely available. Besides, treatment sessions lasted for up to two long hours. Through new technology and updated design, light therapy can now be administered at home or at the office.

It is possible to gain the benefit of the soothing and uplifting properties of light in brief sessions of just 15 to 30 minutes using an attractive table lamp designed to emit the appropriate light frequencies.

Light Therapy for Treatment of SAD

Light Therapy for SAD

Physicians have long been advising their patients to seek adequate light as a necessary component of health. It was only in the most recent years that scientific research has been able to show how important bright light
exposure can be to our physical and mental health.

Over 20 years ago, Dr. Norman Rosenthal and colleagues published their seminal theories describing the use of artificial bright light to alleviate symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Their work hypothesized that by lengthening the daily exposure to light in Northern latitudes--in essence recreating summer length days—would bring about the reduction of depression symptoms in the darker winter months. Dr. Norman Rosenthal was the first to describe SAD; he also established the use of light therapy for treatment during his long career with National Institute of Mental Health. He has written various books and is currently medical director of Capital Clinical Research Associates.

While they may have pioneered the way, subsequent studies around the world have continued to experiment with bright light as a treatment for winter depression and mood disorders. As studies became more refined,
researchers discovered that it is not essential to replicate the precise length of summer daylight. They found that if a patient received light therapy for as little as 30 minutes that would emit the necessary signal to the nervous system and boost spirits.

Generally this treatment is highly safe although patients with eye abnormalities or conditions should always consult with their physicians and regularly repeat eye examinations to ensure safe exposure conditions are met.

A breakthrough for light therapy occurred in 2005 when an American Psychiatric Association work group concluded that light could be used as a “first-line” treatment for both seasonal and non-seasonal depression. This was significant, marking light’s emergence as a viable alternative or addition to drug therapy for depression.

Who Needs Light Therapy

You may want to try light therapy for a number of reasons:

  • It's a proven seasonal affective disorder treatment.
  • You have another condition, such as non-seasonal depression or insomnia, and your doctor recommends it.
  • You want to try treatment that is safe and has few side effects.
  • You want to increase the effectiveness of antidepressant medication or mental health counseling (psychotherapy).
  • You can't take antidepressant medications during pregnancy or while breast-feeding.
  • It may allow you to take a lower dose of antidepressant medication.

When to Start Light Therapy

For most people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the general recommendation is to begin light therapy treatment in the early fall, as soon as the earliest symptoms begin. Treatment usually continues until early spring; when sufficient outdoor light is able sustain a good mood and high energy.

How to Effectively Use Light Therapy

First of all, it is important for patients to consult with their physicians before using a light box. Light therapy will be ineffective and may be harmful if done improperly.

Information for Patients on Using Light Therapy:

  • Avert your eyes
    • Don’t look directly at the light box; this may cause damage to the eyes

Light therapy proves to be most effective when using the proper combination of these three elements: Intensity, Duration and Timing

  • Intensity
    • Intensity of light boxes are recorded in lux (a measure of the amount of light you receive at a specific distance
      from a light source)
    • Light boxes for light therapy produce between 2,500 lux to 10,000 lux. Most commonly they produce 10,000 lux.
    • The intensity of the light box determines how far to sit from it as well as the length of time needed to use it.
    • For example, 10,000 lux light boxes usually require only 30 minutes per session, whereas 2,500 lux light boxes
      may require up to 2 hours per sessin
  • Duration
    • Light therapy on average involves daily sessions ranging from 30 minutes to 2 hours.
    • When first using light therapy it is wise to start at small increments of time such as 15 minutes, and then to gradually work up to longer periods.
  • Timing
    • For most people, light therapy is most effective if used in the morning, soon after waking up, rather than in the
    • Using light therapy at night may disrupt sleep.

    Finding Time

  • Light therapy requires time and consistency
  • Light therapy doesn’t have to be boring
    • You can read, use a computer, eat, write, watch television, etc. while using light therapy.
  • Light therapy works best in the morning
    • You may need to wake up earlier than usual to match treatment with biological rhythms.
    • Your doctor may help find a schedule that works best for you, if waking early is hard to do.

    Continuing Light Therapy

  • You may start to feel better within several days of light therapy, if used appropriately. (Though it usually takes two or more weeks.)

  • Persisting with a daily routine can help to maintain those benefits over time

  • Interrupting light therapy during the winter months, or stopping too soon in the spring—when you think you are getting better, your symptoms could return.

  • You and your doctor can adjust your light therapy treatments based on the timing and duration of your symptoms

Drawbacks and Side-Effects

Light therapy has a good record of safety. It does not seem to produce any major side effects. Light therapy should always be used within the proper limits for intensity and time. Minor side effects may include the following:

  • Eye irritation and dryness
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dryness of skin

To reduce these side effects, begin the light therapy very slowly. Give your body time to get used to it. The use of a humidifier can also help with irritations caused by dryness. Talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist before beginning use.

Light therapy for conditions other than SAD

In addition to seasonal affective disorder, light therapy is being studied as a treatment for other conditions, including:

  • Types of depression that don't occur seasonally
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders
  • Jet lag
  • Sleep disorders
  • Adjusting to a nighttime work schedule
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Dementia
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD

Light Therapy is Officially Recommended by

  • American Academy of Sleep Medicine
  • American Psychiatric Association
  • Mayo Clinic
  • Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms (SLTBR)
  • U.S. Public Health Service Agency for Health Care Policy and Research

Which Renowned Universities are Studying Light Therapy and SAD?

  • Columbia University
  • Duke University
  • Harvard University
  • Yale University

Better Than Fluoxetine

The Can-SAD Study

Canadian researchers compared Light Therapy to Fluoxetine in 96 adults in a double-blind, randomized, and controlled trial. The trial was over the course of 3 winter seasons.

All participants had moderate to severe depression and had never previously used either treatment.

The researchers randomly assigned 48 eligible subjects to receive 10,000 lux active light therapy plus placebo capsules, and 48 to receive 100 lux placebo light therapy plus 20 mg of fluoxetine.

canadian case study fluoxetine vs light treatment

The study concluded that light treatment showed earlier response onset and lower rate of some adverse events relative to fluoxetine.

There were no other significant differences in outcome between light therapy and antidepressant medication. Fluoxetine, however, potentially has more harmful side effects.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that tends to occur (and recur) as the days grow shorter in the fall and winter. It is believed that affected persons react adversely to the decreasing amounts of light and the colder temperatures as the fall and winter progress.Seasonal affective disorder has not been recognized very long as a medical condition. The term first appeared in print in 1985. Seasonal affective disorder is also sometimes called winter depression, winter blues, or the hibernation reaction.The incidence of seasonal affective disorder increases in people who are living farther awayfrom the equator. Seasonal affective disorder is less common where there is snow on the ground. Seasonal affective disorder is more common in women than men. Persons of all ages can develop seasonal affective disorder.

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include tiredness, fatigue, depression, irritability, body aches, loss of sex drive, poor sleep, and overeating.The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder typically tend begin in the Fall each year, lasting until Spring. The symptoms are more intense duringthe darkest months. Therefore, the more common months of symptoms will vary depending on how far away from the equator one lives.

What causes seasonal affective disorder? 

Seasonal affective disorder seems to develop from inadequate bright light during the winter months. Researchers have found that bright light changes the chemicalsin the brain. Exactly how this occurs and the details of its effects are being studied.

What is the treatment for seasonal affective disorder?

Regular exposure to light that is bright, particularly fluorescent light, significantly improves depression in persons with seasonal affective disorder. The light treatment is used daily in the morning and evening for best results. If one could temporarily change locations to a climate that is characterized by bright light (such as the Caribbean), this can achieve similar results. Light treatment has also been called phototherapy.Phototherapy is commercially available in the form of light boxes, which are used for approximately one-half hour daily. The light required must be of sufficient brightness, approximately 25 times as bright as a normal living room light. Contrary to prior theories, the light does not need to be actual daylight from the sun. It seems that it is quantity, not necessarily quality of light, that matters in the light treatment of seasonal affective disorder.

Disclaimer: Information on this web site is provided for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use the information on this web site for diagnosing or treating a medical or health condition. You should carefully read all product packaging. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider.

Statements and information regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated or approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Please consult your healthcare provider before beginning any course of supplementation or treatment.

Circadian Rhythms

Bright light therapy has proven beneficial is in the treatment of certain sleep disorders, insomnias. These insomnias are often associated with altered circadian rhythms of body temperature and melatonin secretion by the pineal gland. Selective application of bright light therapy in the morning or in the evening has been very effective in "resetting" patients' internal clock to coincide with normal living schedules.

Benefits of Light Therapy

Light therapy is most often prescribed to treat seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression most often associated with shortened daylight hours in northern latitudes from the late fall to the early spring. It is also occasionally employed to treat such sleep-related disorders as insomnia and jet lag. Recently, light therapy has also been found effective in the treatment of such nonseasonal forms of depression as bipolar disorder. One 2001 study found that bright light reduced depressive symptoms 12–35% more than a placebo treatment in nine out of 10 randomized controlled trials.When used to treat SAD or other forms of depression, light therapy has several advantages over prescription antidepressants. Light therapy tends to work faster than medications, alleviating depressive symptoms within two to 14 days after beginning light therapy as opposed to an average of four to six weeks with medication. And unlike antidepressants, which can cause a variety of side effects from nausea to concentration problems, light therapy is extremely well tolerated. Some side effects are possible with light but are generally not serious enough to cause discontinuation of the therapy.There are several other different applications for light therapy, including:

  • Full-spectrum/UV light therapy for disorders of the skin. A subtype of light therapy that is often prescribed to treat skin diseases, rashes, and jaundice. Cold laser therapy. The treatment involves focusing very low-intensity beams of laser light on the skin, and is used in laser acupuncture to treat a myriad of symptoms and illnesses, including pain, stress, and tendinitis. Colored light therapy. In colored light therapy, different colored filters are applied over a light source to achieve specific therapeutic effects. The colored light is then focused on the patient, either with a floodlight which covers the patient with the colored light, or with a beam of light that is focused on the area of the illnes