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A Bright future for Light Therapy

by David Noton, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in light and colour, originally published in issue 35 - December 1998

In July of this year, when the summer sun was striving bravely to overcome a dark and rainy English spring, a group of researchers and physicians, leavened by a goodly crew of new-age healers and visionaries, met at Reading University near London, to share their experiences with "light therapy" – the use of light as a treatment for everything from physical disease to psychological disorders. The LIGHT'98 Conference brought health practitioners from all over the world, with some amazing stories of treatment and cure.

Nerve pathways from the eye to the brain go not only to the visual cortex, but also to deeper brain areas concerned with neurohormones, emotions, etc. (Source: Light Years Ahead, Brian Breiling)

Nerve pathways from the eye to the brain go not only to the visual cortex, but also to deeper
brain areas concerned with neurohormones, emotions, etc. (Source: Light Years Ahead, Brian Breiling)

The conference was inspired by a very successful light therapy conference a few years earlier in California and it has spawned several successors, such as a Light/Sound99 conference in Chicago and a LIGHT2000 conference planned for the millennium in Britain. This article attempts to summarise the freewheeling discussions at the LIGHT'98 conference and give an overview of the field of light therapy.

Light therapy techniques range from the most simple and traditional ("Get outside and get some sunshine and fresh air," your grandmother told you) to the most high-tech and sophisticated forms of light-assisted psychotherapy (which was developed in California, of course).

These therapies may be categorised by the form of light used, from simple to sophisticated:

  • Bright Light
  • Coloured Light
  • Flashing Light
  • Coloured Flashing Light

We will consider them in that order. All these forms of light are applied to the eyes or experienced with the eyes. There are yet other forms of light therapy that involve shining light on other parts of the body, for example, direct light treatment of skin conditions or cancer tumours. These will be reviewed briefly at the end of the article.

Bright Light Therapy

The importance of light for health and vitality was perhaps more obvious in ancient times than it is today. People living close to nature have an immediate appreciation of the sun, perhaps even worship it religiously, in a way that is lost when one is insulated from nature by many layers of technology. Even a hundred years ago the medical value of sunlight was still well appreciated. Wounds were known to heal more quickly and with less scarring when sunlight was used as a disinfectant. Tuberculosis clinics flourished in the high mountains of Switzerland.

Rickets responded to sunlight. But sitting around in the sunlight takes time and seems boring in today's busy world, so the discovery of antibiotics in the middle of this century pushed aside most of these slow but natural cures. Taking a pill is sometimes cheaper and more convenient than staying at a sanatorium.

The modern rediscovery of light therapy occurred in a more psychological context. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression, was identified as a light deficiency problem which could be corrected with exposure to bright light, especially on awakening in the morning. Of all the forms of light therapy, bright light treatment for SAD is by far the most thoroughly researched and the most accepted by mainstream medicine. Scientific journal articles on SAD number in the hundreds by now.[1] Several companies on both sides of the Atlantic manufacture "light boxes," sources of bright artificial light for SAD sufferers to sit by during breakfast. There is even a battery-operated light "visor," worn on the head, to shine light directly into the eyes while allowing the wearer to move about.[2] The ultimate high-tech natural treatment is a light "alarm clock," a dawn simulator, which turns on a gradually brightening light source, starting an hour or two before rising time and reaching its maximum when the (indoor) sun rises and it's time to get up![3]

Once the day is started, there is still the problem of inadequate and artificial indoor lighting in the workplace or schoolroom. Conventional fluorescent lamps emit light which is deficient in many of the colours and wavelengths of natural sunlight. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of replacing these lamps with full-spectrum fluorescents, more closely imitating sunlight.[4] Workplace health statistics improve, school performance improves, even dental caries in school children was shown to decrease under full-spectrum lights. These were large studies with large control groups for comparison.

These results are not really too surprising. Humans evolved outdoors, in sunlight. When light enters the eyes and strikes the retina, the resultant nerve signals pass not only to the visual cortex of the brain, so we can see objects, but also, over separate nerve pathways, to other brain structures including the hypothalamus, the pineal and pituitary systems, and the limbic system, causing hormonal and emotional effects. Visual perception is not the only function of the eyes; they are also the openings through which light, almost like a nutrient, reaches the brain.

Bright Light Therapy: a unique light box, useful in the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder, is the Window LiteTM, manufactured by Brio-Brite, Inc, of Bethesda, MD, USA. It incorporates a specially-designed light system that illuminates a beautiful scenic 'view', improving productivity and elevating spirits

Bright Light Therapy: a unique light box, useful in the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder,
is the Window LiteTM, manufactured by Brio-Brite, Inc, of Bethesda, MD, USA. It incorporates a specially-designed light system that illuminates a beautiful scenic 'view', improving productivity and elevating spirits

Coloured Light Therapy

This "nutrient" view of light naturally leads one to consider the effects of different colours of light, selections from the rainbow spectrum of white light. At one sales table at the LIGHT'98 conference visitors could try wearing spectacles of different colours (not just rose coloured specs) and experience the depressive calm of blue-violet specs and the stimulation of yellow ones.

A large study in schools in Alberta, Canada, conducted over a whole school year, compared pupils in classrooms with conventional fluorescent lights and dull coloured walls against pupils in classrooms with full-spectrum lighting and walls painted with warm colours.[5] Both changes separately showed significant improvements in academic performance and discipline and decreases in absenteeism due to illness, and the combination of changes was even more effective.

There is also an entire school of optometrists who use coloured light to treat patients. In the 1920s and 1930s Dr Harry Spitler developed a system known as Syntonic Optometry which uses coloured light, shone into the patient's eyes, to treat a variety of physiological and emotional disorders, far beyond the traditional bounds of optometry. The light is shone into the patient's eyes from a special light source equipped with a variety of coloured filters. The underlying principle of this therapy is to balance the activities of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems using colours that are either stimulating or calming. Practitioners can be found in many countries, though the treatment is most widespread in the US.[6]

Flashing Light Therapy

If bright light and coloured light can have such an effect on the brain, mind, and body, it is to be expected that flashing light would have even more effect. Flashing light certainly grabs one's attention; neurologically speaking, neurons tend to report only changing stimuli, quickly tiring of anything steady. So flashing light might be considered to be a more aggressive form of light therapy, for more severe conditions.

A small but growing body of research studies documents the benefits of this form of light therapy, technically known as photic stimulation. Flashing light is shone into the eyes either from a mask or goggles worn by the patient or by having the patient sit in front of a larger flashing light source one or two feet away. Typically the treatment is applied for 15 or 20 minutes per day.

In a hospital trial in London, flashing light therapy proved more effective than any previously published treatment for pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS).[7] And two separate published studies in the US have shown significant improvement in children with learning disorders such as attention deficit disorder.[8] Several other studies have shown good results in the reduction of chronic pain, including the pain of TMJ, and a photic stimulation device is currently being marketed to dentists' offices for this purpose. The neurological basis for this form of light therapy is suggested by studies by Dr Norman Shealy in Missouri, who found increases in the levels of various hormones and neurochemicals after patients had been treated for 20 minutes with flashing light.[9]

These and other results in the field of photic stimulation were described in more detail in a recent article in Positive Health (see Further Information, below).

Coloured Flashing Light Therapy

Some of the most impressive and moving reports at the LIGHT'98 conference involved the use of coloured flashing light as a catalyst in the process of psychotherapy. Here the more subtle emotional effect of different colours is combined with the penetrating effect of flashing light to accelerate the therapeutic process of uncovering and bringing out deeply buried emotional material for processing and relief. Clearly this procedure is highly dependent on the skill of the therapist; the selection of light colour and flash frequency is an interactive process, involving a high level of awareness and even intuition on the part of the therapist.[10] A live demonstration of this technique with a volunteer subject was one of the more astounding moments of the conference.

Light Therapy not involving the Eyes

Some forms of light therapy involve shining light on parts of the body other than the eyes. The use of blue light as a treatment for neo-natal jaundice is a well-established medical procedure. A recent study reported that merely shining light on the backs of subjects' knees was sufficient to alter the timing of the internal circadian body clock; this suggests that the effects of bright light on SAD, described above, may not be entirely mediated through the eyes.

At the LIGHT'98 conference several practitioners reported on body work with laser light or coloured light applied to acupuncture points in a modern-day version of traditional Chinese medicine. Another particularly impressive presentation reported on work done in Russia, over many years with thousands of patients, using a technique known as blood photo-modification in which blood is drawn from the patient, circulated though a glass tube where it is irradiated with laser light, and then returned directly to the patient; astounding results were reported with a wide range of diseases.

Although it is a dramatic example of the use of light, the photodynamic therapy treatment for cancer is not discussed in this article, since it is really an improved form of chemotherapy, rather than actual light therapy.

Further Information

In a short overview such as this article it is impossible to give full references for all the work cited. The following books give excellent overviews of the whole field of light therapy and provide details and journal references on much of the work described above:

Liberman, Jacob. Light, Medicine of the Future. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Co, 1991.
Breiling, Brian J. Light Years Ahead. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 1996.

The first book is more comprehensive, but the second is somewhat more up-to-date, being essentially a transcription of the 1992 light therapy conference in California. The proceedings of the recent LIGHT'98 conference at Reading University have not yet been published, but a lengthy report on the conference appeared in the magazine section of the Sunday Times (London, 16 August 1998). The article on photic stimulation that appeared in Positive Health, as mentioned above, was in Issue 27, April 1998, pages 17-19. Additional information on some of the therapies mentioned in the present article may also be obtained from the Forest Institute, for which contact details are given below.

Scientific References

1. Schwartz, PJ, Brown, C, Rosenthal, NE, Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Follow-Up Study of the First 59 Patients of the National Institute of Mental Health Seasonal Studies Program. The American J. of Psychiatry, 153(8): 1028, 1996.
2. Joffe, RT, Moul, DE, Lan, RW, Light Visor Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Multicenter Study. Psychiatry Research, 46(1): 29, 1993.
3. Avery, DH, Bolte, MA, Dager, SR, Dawn Simulation Treatment of Winter Depression: A Controlled Study. The American J. of Psychiatry, 150(1):113, 1993.
4. Ott, JN, Color and Light: Their Effects on Plants, Animals, and People. J. of Biosocial Research, 7(1), 1985.
5. Wohlfarth, H, The Effects of Color-Psychodynamic Environmental Modification on Disciplinary Incidences in Elementary Schools over One School Year: A Controlled Study. The International J. of Biosocial Research, 6(1): 44-53, 1984.
6. A list of practitioners is to be found in Section VIII.4 of the book, Light Years Ahead, which is referenced in the Further Information section of this article.
7. Anderson, DJ, Legg, NJ, Ridout, DA. Preliminary trial of photic stimulation for pre-menstrual syndrome. J. of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 17(1): 76-79, 1997.
8. Russell, HL, and Carter, JL, A Pilot Investigation of Auditory and Visual Entrainment of Brainwave Activity in Learning-Disabled Boys. Texas Researcher, J. of the Texas Center for Educational Research, 4: 65-73, 1993.
9. Shealy, CN, et al., Effects of Color Photostimulation Upon Neurochemicals and Neurohormones. J. Neurol Orthop Med Surg, 17: 95-97, 1996.
10. Vasquez, S, Breiling, B, Illuminating the Windows of the Soul: Facilitating Psychotherapy with Eye Movements and Strobic Colored Light Stimulation, Bridges (Magazine of the ISSSEEM), 8(2): 5-7, 1997.


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About David Noton, Ph.D.

David Noton, PhD, is a Director of The Forest Institute, a non-profit organisation based in California, which conducts research and publishes information in the area of mind-brain-body interaction and development. Address: The Forest Institute, 2 Queens Lane, Petaluma CA 94952, USA. Telephone: US 707-765-3348 UK 0958 543 858.

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