Alaska Sleep Education Center

What is Light Therapy and How Does It Work?

Posted by Jennifer Hines

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on Jul 13, 2022 1:49:00 AM

A woman taking advantage of some light therapy.

Therapy comes in all forms and is used to treat a variety of medical illnesses and ailments, as well as mental health conditions. Not everyone responds the same way to therapy, which is why it’s important to keep an open mind and try a few alternatives. One such alternative is light therapy. This process is used to treat insomnia and mood disorders that may cause insomnia. If you’re having trouble sleeping and looking for new and innovative treatment methods, keep reading. In this article, we’ll discuss what light therapy is, how it works, and tips for success.

What is Light Therapy?

Light therapy is also referred to as bright light therapy, circadian therapy, or phototherapy. This form of therapy involves using a special light box to achieve light exposure at certain times of the day. It often replicates the effects of real sunlight, providing the benefits of vitamin D exposure without the harmful damage of strong UV rays. While it may seem too good to be true, research shows that consistent light therapy treatments can help address a variety of issues including insomnia, depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and certain sleep disorders. It can also be used for short-term use to treat acute conditions like jet lag or sleep disturbances caused by shift work. 

How Does Light Therapy Work?

Light therapy works by using focused sunlight or artificial sunlight to help treat certain symptoms associated with mood and sleep disorders. Most light boxes are designed to emit 10,000 lux. This measurement is deemed safe for your eyes since it’s bright enough to have the desired effect without damaging your vision. The light shouldn’t shine directly into your eyes, but instead, indirectly. Most patients sit no more than 24 inches from a lightbox for 30 minutes at a time. You can also purchase a lightbox that emits much much lower lux of 2,500 but this would require you to sit in front of the box for up to 2 hours to achieve the same results. 

During a light therapy session, your eyes perceive and process the light, interacting with important chemicals in your brain. These chemicals include melatonin (the sleep hormone) and serotonin (the hormone responsible for relaxation and happiness), both of which play an important role in regulating your sleep cycle and making you feel tired at night. When you sit in front of a lightbox, it delays your brain from releasing melatonin and, as a result, makes you feel more alert, awake, and happy. 

Most light therapy sessions can be performed in the comfort of your home under the supervision of a healthcare provider. You don’t need a prescription or a medical professional to operate a lightbox or experience its benefits. A doctor or sleep specialist can also offer more information on the reason behind light therapy. Artificial sun exposure helps to align your circadian rhythm and promote consistent, quality sleep. 


Why Your Circadian Rhythm is So Important 

Your circadian rhythm controls your body’s internal clock and sleep-wake cycle. It regulates when you feel tired, alert, and even hungry. The word “circadian” is derived from the Latin words “about” and “day”. Without adequate exposure to sunlight during the day and enough darkness at night, your brain and body become confused over whether you should be awake or asleep. This phenomenon dates back to a time before clocks when a human’s body was regulated by the rising and setting of the sun. When the sun rose and the sky became bright, people would wake up and start their day. And at night, after the sun went down and darkness set in, they knew it was time for sleep. Our bodies have been following these natural sleep patterns for centuries. Unfortunately, the introduction of artificial light and electronic devices has interfered with our body’s ability to differentiate between morning and night or being awake and asleep. 

Studies show that light is the strongest driving force for aligning your circadian rhythm. A sleep specialist will evaluate your specific condition, symptoms, and causes before “prescribing” a plan including what strength lightbox you need, how long you should use it for, and at what time of the day to achieve the best results. Most therapy sessions are done in the morning to treat insomnia-related depression or circadian sleep disorders. When your circadian rhythm is misaligned, you may feel awake when you should be sleeping and exceptionally tired when you should be awake. This is known as phase-delayed. On the other end of the spectrum are people who are phase-advanced. These individuals find themselves getting sleepy in the early evening or afternoon. It can be difficult to fight off the overwhelming urge to take a nap, which may ultimately interfere with your ability to fall and stay asleep at night. Light therapy in the evening can help provide a boost of energy to get you through the rest of your day. 

Light Therapy for Sleep and Mood Disorders

Light therapy is primarily used to treat both sleep and mood disorders. Although the treatment process is the same, the intended results are very different. Here’s a closer look at how light therapy can treat both of these conditions.

Sleep Disorders

The two most common sleep disorders associated with light therapy are insomnia and circadian rhythm disorder. Insomnia is characterized as consistent difficulty falling and staying asleep. Numerous lifestyle choices and health conditions can interrupt sleep including depression, anxiety, stress, poor sleep habits, and other health conditions including chronic pain. Light therapy can help relieve some of these symptoms associated with insomnia.

Circadian rhythm sleep disorders often develop on their own with no specific cause. Some people are naturally more awake at night (night owls), work shift work, or become overstimulated at night. This can confuse your circadian rhythm, triggering a disorder and chronic sleep problems. By regulating and timing light exposure through light therapy, you can realign your circadian rhythm and achieve better, more consistent sleep. 


Mood Disorders

Mood disorders on their own can impact your mental health and overall well-being but they can also interfere with sleep. Light therapy is also used to treat general depression and SAD (seasonal affective disorder). Non-seasonal depression is a common cause of sleep disturbances including daytime sleepiness, insomnia, and hypersomnia. Some studies suggest that light therapy can improve your mood, relieve some depression symptoms, and help promote deeper more restorative sleep. 

SAD is a type of seasonal depression and is most common in the fall and winter months. SAD is triggered by changes in sunlight and the seasons, including earlier and later sunrises and sunsets. The most common sleep issues associated with SAD are difficulty falling asleep and excessive grogginess even after achieving over 10 hours of sleep. Many people with seasonal affective disorder have difficulty regulating serotonin levels or overproducing melatonin. This causes lethargy and can cause depression. Light therapy is used to improve mood, increase serotonin levels, and prevent melatonin production during the daytime. 

Use Light Therapy to Improve Your Mood and Sleep 

If you’re considering alternative ways to treat a sleep or mood disorder, light therapy might be a viable option. Using an affordable lightbox, you can perform these treatments in the privacy of your own home. Used in combination with other forms of therapy like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia or CBT-i, you can finally achieve the deep, restorative sleep you need and deserve. Better sleep quality can also promote an improved mood and reduce depression symptoms including sadness, anxiety, and mood swings. 

Be sure to check out the rest of our blog for more information on the importance of sleep and tips and resources for creating a lifestyle that promotes quality sleep. 

No matter how long it has been since you have had a good night's sleep, there is a routine or tip out there for you that will help you achieve the sleep you dream of. 

At the Alaska Sleep Clinic, our highly trained staff of sleep specialists has helped diagnose and treat tens of thousands of Alaskans over the years suffering from sleep disorders.  We understand that a good night's sleep is critical to people's health and happiness, and we are committed to providing quality service in the treatment of a variety of sleep disorders. If you have concerns about your sleep health and live in the state of Alaska, click on the link below for a free 10-minute phone consultation with one of our sleep specialists.

Finally - Sleep Consultation

Topics: circadian rhythm, light therapy, body, alaska sleep, promote better sleep, sleep clinic, slaap lab

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