Phototherapy is a common treatment for many different disorders. From skin abnormalities to mood disorders, light therapy has more than proven its vigor over the history of numerous cultures. But this therapy’s reputation isn’t just found in the present. The Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and other major ancient cultures all recognized the healing potentials of the sun.
Read our other sleep hygiene guides to learn how to get healthy, restful sleep night after night.
Originally, light therapy, or phototherapy, treated skin conditions such as vitiligo. Colored glass disassembled sunlight, providing the proper UV rays for the patient. Since then, we have invented controlled fluorescent light bulbs that emit ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B wavelengths. These bulbs relieve symptoms of mood disorders, skin conditions, and are used to treat a variety of other ailments.
In this article, we will discuss specific types of phototherapy, treatment devices, and what types of sleep disorders it used to treat.
What is Phototherapy?
So, what exactly is this type of therapy and how can it help you sleep?
Broadly put, phototherapy is the use of ultraviolet waves to treat disorders. But what you’re looking for is something a little more specific. The use of light to help people sleep. This is called Bright Light Therapy.
Bright Light Therapy
Some people have Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder, where their internal clock is out of sync with the rest of the population. In other words, your body says it’s time to be awake when you’re supposed to be asleep.
You see, being exposed to sunlight is what helps keep us awake. That is the reason why when you go to take a nap in the middle of the day you block out the sun. Sunlight hinders your ability to sleep because the light is still reaching the photoreceptors in your eyes.
Now, what are photoreceptors? They are the cylindrical rod structures in the eye. They are extremely sensitive to the light, and signal to your brain to stay awake. The goal is to remind your body of its natural biological patterns, by flashing your photoreceptors with a safe amount of artificial bright light during critical times of the day.
After the photoreceptors process the light, the data transfers to the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN). The SCN is part of your hypothalamus and frontal lobe and determines the light and dark signals taken from photoreceptors. Then it tells the pineal gland when it is time to secrete melatonin, signaling the body when it is time to sleep.
To receive proper treatment, you need the proper device. With modern technology, scientists have invented a device that houses a special UV bulb. This bulb replicates the sun and can give us the signals our photoreceptors need to treat sleeping disorders.
Modern devices can produce up to 10,000 lux of light. This is a vast improvement of the 2,500 to 5,000 lux of light. This means that current models take the original treatment time from 2 to 3 hours down to only 15 to 30 minutes.
On top of that, newer models are safer than ever. They have more protection from harmful UV rays and some even have more focused light bands to keep the light off the majority of your body.
Some light boxes are being made smaller to allow a patient to carry the box around with them. Your physician will prescribe specific times of day when the treatment should take place. The physician will also prescribe the length of a single treatment. It’s important to adhere to the physician’s instructions, as time and length of the treatment is critical in the healing process.
Now, how is the treatment performed?
You have to stay at a distance of 18 to 24 inches from the box. Now the box doesn’t require that you look at the light box; however, it does require that you constantly face the light box throughout the treatment. Facing the box ensures the light reaches your light receptors. This will allow your body to collect the light and translate it into data to use to regulate the natural circadian rhythm in your body.
Although all light devices work the same, there are several models you can choose from. So, what are your options? Great question.
There are several different devices you can use to help you receive the therapy you need, which we will explore in greater detail below.
This is the most common device used is the light box. Taking the form of a box or a briefcase or a small computer screen, it is easy to carry and can be set on any flat surface, such as a desk.
A desk lamp is very much the same as a light box. The only major difference is the appearance. It helps a patient blend their treatment equipment into an office setting.
It has the same lux strength as the light box. So, your sessions won’t be any longer.
The light visor is a headpiece that hangs over your eyes. It’s useful for those who would prefer to move around during a treatment session.
The downside to this treatment option is the light strength in this device is around 3,000 to 10,000 lux, so treatment sessions could take more than the average 30 minutes.
The Dawn Simulator makes a dark room brighter over a certain period of time. As the name says, it is an imitation of light that comes with a sunrise. There are also other models that can mimic a sunset.
There are many people who say that this device helps them wake up at a certain time in the mornings.
For further reading on Bright Light Therapy:
What Bright Light Therapy Can Treat and How
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
SAD, or the winter blues, is a seasonal mood disorder that usually takes place during the winter or fall. The reason? The position of the sun during this time of the year. The sun is lower at all points in the day, giving less light so the days are shorter.
For example, in Alaska the sun only rises for 4 hours out of the day during winter. Due to this, the residences only get a few hours of sunlight. Phototherapy is a wonderful tool to supply regular Vitamin C and UV rays. This method of therapy is often used to avoid cabin fever.
People affected by this disorder have low levels of energy and have difficulty concentrating. They also usually have a change in appetite and experience trouble sleeping.
To offset these symptoms, bright light therapy could be a viable option. Please understand that this is not a cure to SAD. It can simply ease the symptoms, helping you increase your energy levels, and lighten depression. As always, please discuss these options with a physician if you plan on starting or stopping this type of phototherapy sessions.
Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (SDPS)
Those with SDPS are what you would call the extreme night owls. This is a disorder where your internal clock delayed by at least 2 hours or more beyond what is socially acceptable to the local area.
DSPS develops in adolescents after puberty. 7 to 16 percent of the general adolescent population have developed this disorder. This makes the sleeping condition a common condition. Those who say they are night owls or that functions better in the evenings or during the night most likely have DSPS but the truth is, if these people kept a sleep log, they would see that the hours that they sleep is severely decreased from the normal.
For example, someone with SDPD will not be able to sleep until 2 a.m. and will have a hard time waking up a eight a.m.
Symptoms of this disorder include inability to fall asleep, inability to wake up at the desired time, sleepiness during the day. Children or teenagers with this disorder will showcase behavioral problems and depression. They will also have a dependency on caffeine.
Bright light therapy is one of the several treatments that set this disorder on the correct path. Typically, a session happens in the morning after the person wakes up. Sometimes there is a less intense evening session with weaker light. Your physician will suggest the appropriate device. He will also prescribe the correct frequency of sessions and the length those sessions will last.
Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome (ASPS)
Unlike most sleeping disorders, people with ASPS are well-rested. The duration and quality of their sleep are at the level that it should be. The problem with their sleep is their inability to stay awake in the evening. And if they go to bed later than normal they will wake up at the same time, leaving them short on the hours of sleep that they need. These people are typically early-to-bed, early-to-rise extremists.
This disorder has strong genetic links and is more prevalent in adults. 40 to 50 percent of people suffering from ASPS have someone in their family with the same condition.
Most people with this disorder do not ask for treatment unless it interferes with their social lives. Again, bright light therapy could alleviate this condition. By using a light box in the afternoon or evening, under the direction of a physician, the patient’s photoreceptor will take the light data and inform the rest of your body that it is not time to be asleep.
Depending on the way your traveling, eastward or westward, the effects of jetlag could vary. When your travel westward, the day will extended. When you travel eastward, your day shortens dramatically.
The light cues that the photoreceptor in your eyes deciphers are extremely important to your biological clock. It creates a disconnection between the time your body thinks it is and the time it actually is, which is the definition of jet lag.
Remember the way the suprachiasmatic nucleus processes the dark and light data to tell the pineal gland when to make you sleepy? Well, your biological clock overrides this. Your body develops a natural rhythm for its day to day sleep and wake schedule. However, when you’re in a completely different time zone, your photoreceptor and SCN will pick up the difference in the light and dark schedule from your body’s circadian rhythm. The tiredness your body begins to feel is your biological clock turning its hands to fit the local timezone.
Phototherapy can help improve the rate of time that your body takes to get back on a normal schedule.
Shift Maladaptation Syndrome
People who do shift work (where their shifts change from morning to night) are at higher risk for developing this condition. Simply, this condition is the inability to adapt to an ever-shifting sleep schedule.
1 in 5 workers in industrial countries works on a shift. Of that 20 percent population, only 63 percent of shift workers stated that they are able to get enough sleep due to the time of their shifts. Despite work schedules being the cause, it’s considered a Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder.
Bright light therapy may help you establish a regular sleeping schedule that works with your work shift.
Age-Related Sleep Maintenance Insomnia
More than half of the population of the age of 65 report having sleeping problems. The complaints are not as narrow as most sleeping problems. Here are a few of the difficulties that they are facing:
- Can’t get enough sleep
- Waking in the night frequently
- Waking too early
- Daytime sleepiness
- Lots of napping
Medical conditions may be the causes of these sleep symptoms. However, as we age our internal clock advances resulting in Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome. In some cases, some of the older population’s internal clock shortens to about 22.5 hours instead of the usual 24 hours.
Doing this routine during the mornings and evenings can help lengthen the circadian rhythm by getting your internal clock in order. We also suggest those using light therapy to improve their sleep invest in a high-quality mattress, too–as light therapy can only do so much if your bed is uncomfortable or unsupportive.
For Further Reading: