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How Does Light Therapy Work?

January 14, 2021 4 min read


How Does Light Therapy Work?

Bright Light Therapy

You may be like most of us who have heard about people using bright light therapy for different ailments, and in particular for seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. But what exactly is light therapy, and what does it entail? How does light therapy work? In this post, we will examine light therapy and find out everything we can about it. 

Although primarily recommended for SAD sufferers, light therapy is said to also be beneficial for people with skin problems like acne, scarring and wounds, or even wrinkles? How about for those who suffer from chronic insomnia? What about dementia? How about depression and anxiety? The truth is, there is research out there that lends credibility to the fact that it can help with all of these things. Although nothing can be proven beyond question, certainly there's a lot to consider. 

There are two different types of what is called light therapy. The first type contains UV light, needs closer medical supervision and is the kind that treats the skin conditions listed above. The second type is the kind that has full-spectrum, safe UV-free light, and is called a light therapy lamp. The second type is the subject of our article. Let's explore how it works. 

How It Works

Light therapy works by stimulating the cells in the retina of our eyes that connect with an area in the middle of our brain called the hypothalamus. This helps control what is called our circadian rhythm. This is primarily our sleep-wake cycle. Our circadian rhythm is a natural, internal process that repeats itself each rotation of the earth, or approximately every 24 hours. 

Besides our sleep-wake cycle, it also involves physical, mental and behavioral changes our bodies go through in every 24 hour cycle. Some things it affects are sleep, body temperature, hormones, appetite, and other body functions. Abnormal circadian rhythms can cause things like obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder, seasonal affective disorder, and insomnia or other sleep disorders.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects approximately 3 million Americans every year, and can be debilitating. It is a mood disorder resulting in depression that occurs at the same time every year, usually during the winter months when there is less sunlight. The symptoms of SAD can include: 
  • Fatigue and lack of energy 
  • Insomnia or excess sleep 
  • Depression and hopelessness 
  • Social withdrawal 
  • Mood swings 
  • Appetite changes and cravings for excess sweets and carbohydrates 
  • Irritability 
  • Lack of concentration or apathy 
The good news is that the symptoms of SAD can be alleviated for most people simply by using a light therapy lamp.  

Light Therapy Lamps

First of all, light therapy lamps are not meant to be confused with a cure for SAD, or any other ailment for that matter. What they can do, however, is alleviate the symptoms of SAD, as well as some other disorders such as insomnia and depression. Since the symptoms are what cause people to suffer, with practically any medical issue, this can be a significant help. 

Light therapy lamps are typically designed using artificial sunlight, which are lights that cover a full-spectrum CRI, or color rendering index. Brightness has been found to be optimal when at 10,000 lux, or lumens. In the past, light therapy lamps were called light boxes. Light boxes or light therapy lamps can be found from 2500 lux to 10,000 lux. Sunrise Sensations has great choices that meet this highest level of criteria, if you're looking for the best light therapy lamp. 

Other Ailments Benefited 

As previously mentioned, light therapy can help multiple different ailments. For instance, for insomnia, other circadian rhythm sleep disorders like jet lag, a new schedule etc., light therapy can help restore your natural sleep patterns and thus relieve your symptoms. Those who suffer from depression can also benefit by adding light therapy to their treatment. Alzheimers and dementia sufferers may be helped by light therapy as well, restoring sleep and easing symptoms of Sundowning.

How To Use Light Therapy Lamps

If you're looking into this type of therapy, you should talk to your doctor about it first, so they can help you decide how much time to spend under the artificial light each day. Typically, you start at about 30 minutes each day, at the same time every morning after waking, usually between 6-9am. Each light therapy lamp is different depending on the amount of lux, however. Therefore, it's important to follow the manufacturer's guide carefully when it comes to how far away from the light box you should be. 

Remember the light must hit your eyes to have the correct effect, so don't fall asleep or have your eyes closed during your therapy. At the same time, don't look directly into the light. Light therapy usually starts to show significant results within just a few days, and no longer than 2 weeks. You can do normal activities while doing your daily light therapy, as long as you remain about the same distance from the light as recommended. 

Other Information About Light Therapy

Light therapy lamps come in many different styles and sizes. They're usually square or rectangle shaped, however, and ideally will have a light surface of 12 inches or more. Light therapy is also known by multiple other names, such as bright light therapy (BLT), heliotherapy, and phototherapy. Light therapy lamps are also known as light boxes, bright light boxes, light therapy boxes and SAD lamps. Seasonal affective disorder is also called seasonal depression or simply winter blues. 

Using light therapy lamps is one of the most popular and preferred treatment methods for seasonal affective disorder and sleep disorders due to the fact that it is safe for nearly everyone with few side effects. Some of these can be mild eye strain or headaches, agitation or feeling "wired", nausea, or sweating. If you do feel any of these side effects, they should be mild and short lived. Be sure and communicate well with your doctor whenever using a new treatment.

Also check out our post on how long does it take for light therapy to work to learn more.