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Light therapy: who is it suitable for?

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 315 views

Light therapy uses electromagnetic radiation with a specific wavelength and illuminance. It is mainly used for mental and dermatological diseases such as depression or psoriasis. Read all about light therapy, how it works and the risks.

What is light therapy?

Light therapy uses the effect of different forms of light on the body. Classic light therapy uses bright fluorescent light, which is physically equivalent to sunlight. With a strength of 2500 to 10000 lux mental illnesses are successfully treated, especially seasonal depression (seasonal affective disorder, SAD). Skin diseases can be effectively treated

with the help of UV light (phototherapy). A special form of this is phototherapy. Infrared light relieves pain through its warming effect and promotes blood circulation. Newborns with jaundice are placed under a blue light therapy lamp for treatment.

When do you do light therapy?

Classic light therapy is used for the following diseases:

  • depressions
  • migraine
  • sleep disorders
  • eating disorder
  • Burnout

The use of a light therapy lamp – also known as a light shower – influences the inner clock, which is primarily controlled by the sun’s rays. If the days get shorter in autumn and winter or if this rhythm gets out of balance due to shift work, the body reacts with increased melatonin production. This so-called sleep hormone makes you tired – in too large quantities it can also lead to depression. At the same time, the serotonin level drops as the body converts serotonin into melatonin. Serotonin is considered the happiness hormone and, among other things, lifts the mood.

The bright light of the light shower gets your inner clock back on track and at the same time ensures that the serotonin level increases again.

UV-A and UV-B radiation (ultraviolet radiation) is mainly used to treat dermatological diseases:

  • psoriasis
  • White Spot Disease (Vitiligo)
  • Neurodermatitis (atopic eczema)
  • T-cell lymphomas of the skin (mycosis fungoides)
  • Graft-versus-host disease – a systemic disease after bone marrow transplantation

The so-called PUVA (psoralen and UV-A phototherapy) is one of the most effective forms of light therapy.

Further information: PUVA

If you want to know how to make a PUVA and what you need to consider when doing it, read the  PUVA post .

What do you do with light therapy?

Successful light therapy requires an illuminance of at least 2500 lux. A special light therapy device is required for this, since normal light bulbs only emit around 300 to 800 lux.

The light shower emits a fluorescent, diffused, broad-spectrum light that most closely resembles natural sunlight. The effect of light therapy is primarily due to the absorption of light through the retina of the eye. In this way, it reaches the so-called suprachiasmatic nucleus, a part of the brain that plays a decisive role as a generator of impulses for the cicardian rhythm (daily rhythm) and thus also for the serotonin and melatonin level.

To protect the eyes from the damaging effects of UV light, the light therapy device has a UV filter. The light shower is set up at a distance of half a meter to a meter from the eyes. Depending on the level of illumination, you should be illuminated for between 30 minutes and two hours. An ideal time is in the early morning hours between 5:30 a.m. and 8:00 a.m., as the light shower not only has an antidepressant but also a stimulating effect. The best effect is achieved by staring directly into the light shower for a few seconds every minute.

Normally, the light therapy takes effect after three to four days. If the light therapy has no effect during this time, the illuminance can be increased or the duration of the illumination can be extended. An additional light shower in the evening is also helpful. The light therapy usually lasts a week, but can be repeated in case of relapses.

With UV-A or UV-B phototherapy, the skin is initially irradiated two to three times a week with a low dose, which is then gradually increased. Various inflammatory cells in the skin are inhibited by the UV light. On average, phototherapy lasts five to eight weeks.

A special case is neonatal jaundice . A breakdown product of red blood cells, bilirubin, accumulates in the newborn’s body and turns the skin and eyes yellow. If bilirubin exceeds a certain level, brain damage can occur. This can be counteracted with color light therapy. Short-wave blue light helps the newborn to excrete bilirubin more quickly.

Apart from this medically recognized exception, color light therapy is more likely to be classified in the wellness sector or in alternative healing methods. Although there are studies that indicate that the sight of certain colors could have an influence on the organism – an American study, for example, showed that people eat less from blue plates – color light therapy is not medically recognized.

What are the risks of light therapy?

There are no known serious side effects of light therapy. Rarely do headaches, eye irritation or a feeling of tightness of the skin occur. However, these symptoms subside after a few hours. Blue light therapy can cause skin rashes, increased fluid loss and diarrhea in newborns. The UV radiation from phototherapy works basically like natural sunlight and is potentially carcinogenic in excess and accelerates skin aging.

What do I have to consider with light therapy?

The success of the therapy with the light shower depends to a large extent on the illuminance and the distance. Since each light therapy lamp can emit different lux values, you should consult your doctor about the exact application.

Regular treatment is also important, even on symptom-free days. Light therapy in the evening should only be carried out in consultation with your doctor, as a light shower can disrupt the circadian sleep-wake cycle. Certain medications such as tricyclic antidepressants, neuroleptics or lithium increase light sensitivity. Therefore, an ophthalmological examination should be carried out before the start of light therapy . Likewise, prior consultation with an ophthalmologist is recommended for all eye diseases.

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