Light Therapy – Phototherapy

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What is Light Therapy?

Light therapy is the use of bright light in the treatment of sleep disorders, including circadian rhythm sleep disorders. In patients with disordered sleeping patterns, light therapy can help adjust the circadian rhythm to align with healthier, more regular sleep and wake times.

Light therapy can help treat:

In addition to sleep disorders, light therapy can help treat other conditions, from skin diseases to depression.

Also called phototherapy or bright light therapy, this treatment has the benefits of being inexpensive and easy to implement with few side effects. Light therapy is most often carried out at home in front of a “light box” or special lamp that’s used at a specified time each day. People who can’t fall asleep at bedtime use the light box in the morning, while people who fall asleep and wake up too early use the box at night.

How Does Light Therapy Treat Sleep Disorders?

Light is one of the most powerful factors influencing the body’s circadian rhythm. Exposure to light activates the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the brain’s hypothalamus, which governs sleep-wake cycles along with normal, cyclical fluctuations in hormones and temperature levels. Properly timed exposure to light helps encourage melatonin to rise and fall at times that correspond with sleep. When light therapy is used consistently, it can help people fall asleep more easily at bedtime and wake up more easily in the morning.

How Effective is Light Therapy?

The effectiveness of light therapy depends on the quality of light used, the timing of the light therapy, and the consistency of treatment.

Four factors are important for effective light therapy:

  • Color of light used (White or blue light is preferred)
  • Brightness of the light used (Generally 5,000 to 10,000 LUX)
  • Timing of light exposure
  • Length of light exposure

Studies show benefits to light therapy in patients experiencing insomnia along with other health conditions like Parkinson’s Disease. Light therapy is considered most effective when used in combination with timed melatonin therapy.

Using Light Therapy at Home

Start by consulting your doctor, because improperly timed light therapy could make sleep problems worse. Then purchase a light box, either at a medical supply store or nearly any big-box retailer.

Next, determine the best schedule for your light therapy. When used to treat delayed sleep-wake phase disorder, a condition in which people stay up very late at night and can’t wake up in the morning, light therapy involves exposure to a light box for 30 to 60 minutes in the morning. These patients are also advised to avoid blue light within an hour or two of bedtime. Some patients wear special glasses to block blue light during these periods.

When used to treat advanced sleep-wake phase disorder, the therapy is reversed. Patients are exposed to the light box in the early evening to encourage them to stay awake until bedtime.

Like many therapies for sleep, consistency is important. Light therapy is only effective when used regularly, and sleep problems will usually resume when light therapy is stopped.

Additional Resources
Non-pharmaceutical Therapies for Insomnia
The Light-er Side of Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder
Bright Light Therapy Improves Excessive Daytime Sleepiness Associated with Parkinson’s Disease

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