Light Therapy – How it Works, Contraindications, and Research

Light therapy or phototherapy has been recognized for its therapeutic powers to heal many mental, psychological, and physical disorders in people over the centuries. In the early 1980s, The Institute of Mental Health demonstrated its efficacy in clinical studies. Since then, more and more researchers are studying its effects. Psychiatrists, psychologists, family doctors, and private practitioners are using phototherapy to help their patients. The treatment is easy to take, non-surgical, and safe to use when the proper precautions are taken. Even so, it is advisable to consult a certified therapist or your general practitioner when opting for the therapy.

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How Light Therapy Works

has been found to have positive effects on the biochemical processes of the brain. It can also stimulate the ATP reactions in the body. Here’s how it can help different ailments.

For balancing circadian rhythms: Light therapy has two biological aspects such as intensity and wavelength. Humans can see light at wavelengths of 780 nm or red light to 400 nm or violet light. While in the past times, researchers studied the effects of a mixed range or spectrum of light similar to daylight, it has now been found that a short wavelength of blue light of 460 nm is more effective in treating sleep disturbances that are caused by the lack of synchronization in the circadian rhythms.

For treating cancer: Light therapy can be used to activate certain drugs called photosensitizing agents that can kill cancerous cells. This process is also called photochemotherapy, photo radiation therapy, and phototherapy.

For treating acne: Doctors recommend light therapy to shrink sebaceous glands for the prevention of acne and breakouts. Light can activate the porphyrins that are contained in the acne-causing bacteria, effectively destroying them.  

For treating jaundice in newborn infants: Newborn infants may have yellow skin and eyes because of an excess of bilirubin in their bodies. Exposing them to blue light can help treat the condition.

For treating conditions like arthritis, stroke, and delay in healing injuries: Low-intensity light therapy, also called low level light therapy or photobiomodulation therapy can stimulate the production of mitochondria and stem cells that reduce inflammations, ease pain, and speed up healing. The therapy is also helpful in reducing oxidative stress in the body. In addition, it can be used to lower the recovery times between the intense workout sessions that athletes undertake. Thus, athletes have better endurance, stamina, and endurance levels.

Contraindications of Light Therapy

SAD Light Therapy

While light therapy is safe and can be taken by any person, under certain conditions, your therapist might not recommend the treatment. It is always advisable to check with your general practitioner or specialist doctor before beginning the therapy. Ask if you can use it to supplement the treatment you’re taking. Never stop taking medications and rely solely on light therapy.

  • Light therapy can trigger mania in people who have bipolar disorder.
  • If you have sensitive eyes and skin, light therapy may not be for you.
  • Certain eye conditions such as glaucoma, retinopathy, retinal detachment, and cataracts can worsen when exposed to light.
  • If you’re taking certain medications such as antibiotics and anti-inflammatories that can change how you respond to light, refrain from taking the treatment.
  • Some conditions such as systemic lupus erythematosus where the body’s immune system targets its own tissues may worsen because of light therapy.

Devices for Getting Light Therapy

Typically, you won’t need to get a prescription to buy a lightbox. However, it is advisable that you check with your doctor before starting the therapy and ask about the precautions you need to take. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Ask around about the right kind of light therapy box that is best suited for your individual needs with the minimum of possible side effects. It must have the right kind of light with the ideal intensity.
  • Make sure that your lightbox has the necessary ultraviolet filters to protect your skin and eyes.
  • Look for high-grade devices such as electric lamps, fluorescent lamps, or incandescent lamps at your drugstore or internet retail sites. You can also buy bi-axial, cool white, LED, and tri-phosphor lamps.
  • Any device that emits full-spectrum light that is similar to sunlight can be used.
  • You might want to keep in mind that your purchase may not be covered by your insurance provider.

Research Conducted 0n the Efficacy of Light Therapy

Clinical studies conducted on the effectiveness of light therapy have shown surprising results.

  • Professor Hanli Liu and her team of researchers at the University of Texas, Arlington studied the effects of light on brain disorders with a special focus on PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in veterans. They found that by directing the source of light on the foreheads of their subjects, they could energize the neurons and improve cognitive function and memory.
  • Dr. Shamsi Shekari at the Queensland University of Technology studied the effects of light therapy on drivers that were sleep deprived. She found that the treatment could improve the alertness of drivers and their control on the vehicles. In this way, light therapy has the potential of reducing the number of car mishaps.
  • Scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital of McGill University and the McGill University Health Centre conducted research on the effects of light therapy on chronic pain and found that by exposing the affected area to light, it is possible to lower the need for pain medication and analgesics by way of a process called optogenetic therapy.

Phototherapy has proved to be very effective in helping people treat various conditions, among them seasonal depression resulting from the lower availability of sunshine during the fall and winter months or SAD, arthritis, pain, acne, and many more. You can safely rely on its non-invasive modality for relief from ailments.


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  6. “Groundbreaking research on effects of NIR light could lead to effective treatment for PTSD.” News Medical Life Sciences. 7 Sept. 2016. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.
  7. “CARRS-Q study shows caffeine combined with bright light can improve driver alertness.” News Medical Life Sciences. 9 Aug. 2016. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.
  8. “Non-invasive optogenetic therapy can help treat chronic pain.” News Medical Life Sciences. 21 Apr. 2016. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.