Light therapy refers to two different categories of treatment, one used in mainstream medical practice and the other in alternative/complementary medicine. Mainstream light therapy (also called phototherapy) includes the use of ultraviolet light to treat psoriasis and other skin disorders, and the use of full-spectrum or bright light to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Light therapy for SAD was first introduced in the 1980s and is now a widely approved form of treatment for the disorder.
Light therapy in alternative or complementary approaches includes such techniques as the use of colored light or colored gemstones directed at or applied to various parts of the body. In some alternative forms of light therapy, the person visualizes being surrounded by and breathing in light of a particular color.
Mainstream light therapy
The purpose of light therapy in mainstream psychiatric treatment is the relief of 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 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 . Light therapy for SAD and nonseasonal forms of depression is thought to work by triggering the brain's production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter related to mood disorders. Other researchers think that light therapy may relieve depression or jet lag by resetting the body's circadian rhythm, or inner biological clock.
In dermatology, ultraviolet (UV) light therapy is used to treat rashes, psoriasis, other skin disorders, and jaundice. Outpatient treatment for psoriasis usually requires three treatment sessions per week until the skin clears, which takes about seven weeks.
Alternative light therapies
Alternative light therapies are generally used to treat energy imbalances in the seven major chakras. Chakras are defined in Eastern systems of traditional medicine as energy centers in the human body located at different points along the spinal column. Each chakra is thought to absorb a certain vibration of light in the form of one of the seven colors of the rainbow, and to distribute this color energy through the body. When a specific chakra is blocked, light in the color associated with that chakra can be used to unblock the energy center and balance the flow of energy in the body.
The seven major chakras in the body and their associated colors are:
- red: the root chakra, located at the base of the spine
- orange: the sacral chakra, located in the small of the back
- yellow: the solar plexus chakra
- green: the heart chakra
- blue: the throat or thyroid chakra
- indigo: the so-called "third eye," located in the head at the level of the pineal gland
- violet or white: the crown chakra, located at the level of the pituitary gland
Alternative forms of light therapy also use colored light to heal different parts of the body associated with the various chakras. For example, yellow light would be used to heal digestive disorders, green to treat the circulatory system, and so on. Concentrating colored light into a narrow beam or applying a colored gemstone is thought to stimulate the acupuncture or acupressure points that govern the various organ systems of the body. This application of light therapy is sometimes called chromatherapy.
Patients with eye disorders should consult an ophthalmologist before being treated with any form of phototherapy. Patients who are taking medications that make their skin sensitive to UV rays or bright light should also consult their health care provider. Although there are no reports of permanent eye damage from either light box therapy or UV treatment for skin disorders, patients sometimes experience headaches, dry eyes, mild sunburn, or fatigue . These problems can usually be relieved by adjusting the length of time for light treatments and by using a sunscreen and nose or eye drops. Lastly, patients who should have UV treatment for skin disorders should receive it from a board-certified dermatologist or other licensed health care professional; they should not attempt to treat themselves with sunlamps or similar tanning appliances.
There are no precautions needed for alternative light therapies.
Mainstream light therapy
Mainstream phototherapy for skin disorders involves the exposure of the affected areas of skin to ultraviolet light. It is most often administered in an outpatient clinic or doctor's office. Light therapy for seasonal affective disorder and other forms of depression can be self-administered at home or in a private room in the workplace. The patient sits in front of a light box mounted on or near a desk or table for a period of time each day ranging from 15 minutes to several hours, depending on the severity of the SAD symptoms. Some SAD patients may have two or three sessions of light therapy each day. Treatment typically begins in the fall, when the days grow noticeably shorter, and ends in the spring.
The light box itself may be equipped with full-spectrum bulbs, which do emit UV rays as well as visible light; or it may use bulbs that filter out the UV rays and emit bright light only. Most light boxes emit light ranging from 2500–10,000 lux, a lux being a unit of light measurement equivalent to 1 lumen per square meter. For purposes of comparison, average indoor lighting is 300–500 lux, and the sunlight outdoors on a sunny day in summer is about 100,000 lux. Patients are instructed to sit facing the light box but to avoid staring directly at it. They can read or work at their desk while sitting in front of the light box. Light boxes cost between $200 and $500, but can often be rented from medical supply companies.
Newer forms of light therapy for SAD include the light visor, which resembles a baseball cap with a light source attached underneath the front of the device, above the wearer's eyes. The light visor allows the patient to walk or move about while receiving light treatment. Another new treatment is dawn simulation, which appears to be especially helpful for SAD patients who have difficulty getting up in the morning. In dawn simulation, the lighting fixture is programmed to turn gradually from dim to brighter light to simulate the sunrise. Dawn simulation is started around 4:30 or 5 o'clock on the morning, while the patient is still asleep.
Alternative light therapies
Chromatherapy may be administered in several different ways. The first step is determining the source or location of the patient's energy imbalance. Some color therapists or chromapaths are sensitive to the colors in the aura, or energy field surrounding a person's physical body that is invisible to most people. Dark or muddy colors in the aura are thought to indicate the locations of energy imbalance. Another technique involves suspending a quartz crystal on a pendulum over each chakra while the patient lies on a table or on the floor. The crystal swings freely if the chakra is open and energy is moving normally, but stops or moves irregularly if the chakra is blocked.
In the second stage of treatment, colored light is directed at specific areas of the body. The chromapath may use either colored light bulbs or may filter white light through a colored plastic filter. The red, orange, and yellow rays are thought to enter the body more effectively through the soles of the feet; patients receiving these colors of light may be asked to sit on the floor with their bare feet 12–14 inches from the light source. The green ray is thought to enter through the solar plexus and the blue, indigo, and violet rays through the crown of the head. Blue light can be used to irradiate the whole body for the relief of physical pain, and violet light can be similarly used to relieve nervous strain and mental disorders.
Another form of colored light therapy involves the use of gemstones in the colors appropriate to each chakra. The crystal structures of gemstones are thought to reflect and transmit energy vibrations, including color vibrations. In gemstone treatment, the chromapath first cleanses the patient's aura with a clear quartz crystal and then places colored gemstones (usually semiprecious rather than expensive precious stones) on the parts of the body corresponding to the location of the chakras while the patient is lying on his or her back or stomach. The colored stones are thought to both cleanse the aura and recharge the energy centers.
A third form of colored light therapy is called color breathing or color visualization. It can be self-administered at home or any other private space. The patient sits in a chair with both feet on the floor, or sits on the floor in the lotus position. He or she then breathes slowly and rhythmically while visualizing being surrounded by light of the appropriate color and breathing in that color. The patient may also repeat a verbal affirmation related to the color, such as "The orange ray is filling me with vitality and joy," or "The violet ray is healing every part of my being."
Patients should consult their health care provider before mainstream phototherapy, in order to determine possible sensitivity to bright light and adjust medication dosages if necessary.
Holistic and alternative practitioners usually ask patients to bathe or shower before chromatherapy, and to wear loosely fitting white or neutral-colored clothing. Washing is considered necessary to remove any negative energies that the patient has picked up from other people or from the environment. Wearing light-colored loose clothing is thought to minimize interference with the vibrations from the colored light or gemstones. The final step in preparation is a brief period of meditation or creative visualization for the practitioner as well as the patient. This step helps to create an atmosphere of calm and relaxation for the treatment.
No aftercare is necessary for mainstream light treatments.
Practitioners of alternative light therapies recommend that patients sit or rest quietly for a few minutes after the treatment rather than returning abruptly to their daily routines. This brief rest is thought to maximize the benefits of the treatment.
As was previously mentioned, mainstream light therapies may produce minor side effects (headache, insomnia, mild sunburn or skin irritation, dry eyes) in some patients. In addition, some patients receiving phototherapy for SAD may experience hypomania, which is a feeling of euphoria or an exaggeratedly "upbeat" mood. As with the physical side effects, hypomania can usually be managed by adjusting the frequency or length of light therapy sessions.
There are no known risks associated with alternative light therapies.
Normal results for mainstream light treatments are clearing of the skin disorder or a lifting of depressed mood or jet lag.
Normal results for alternative light therapies include a sense of heightened energy and relief from negative thoughts or preoccupations. Some chromapaths also consider relief of physical pain or symptoms to be normal results for chromatherapy.
See also Circadian rhythm sleep disorder
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American Holistic Medicine Association. Suite 201, 4101 Lake Boone Trail, Raleigh, NC 27607.
Colour Therapy Association. P. O. Box 16756, London SW20 8ZW, United Kingdom.
International Society for the Study of Subtle Energies and Energy Medicine (ISSSEEM). 356 Goldco Circle. Golden, CO 80401. (303) 278-2228. <www.vitalenergy.com/ISSSEEM> .
National Depressive and Manic Depressive Association. 730 Franklin Street, Suite 501, Chicago, IL 60610. (800) 826-3632. <www.ndmda.org> .
National Institute of Mental Health. Mental Health Public Inquiries, 5600 Fishers Lane, Room 15C-05, Rockville, MD 20857. (301) 443-4513. (888) 826-9438. <www.nimh.nih.gov> .
Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms. 824 Howard Ave., New Haven, CT 06519. Fax (203) 764-4324. <www.sltbr.org> . E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca J. Frey, Ph.D.