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Phototherapy: The Healing Power Of Light

The UV radiation generated by the sun, particularly UVA and UVB is used for treatment in photo or light therapy. This therapy can effectively treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), vit D deficiency, sleep and skin disorders such as atopic eczema and psoriasis. It can also help lower bilirubin (a yellow waste product) levels in the blood, in case of neonatal jaundice.

Phototherapy is essentially treatment with light. The tradition of using light to heal is centuries-old. Ancient Egyptians used it to treat vitiligo over 3500 years back.1 It also gets a mention in the ancient Indian text Atharva Veda for similar reasons. In the 19th century, mainstream medical science began to recognize that sunlight kills bacteria. And in 1903, before anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics were available, Niels Ryberg Finsen got the Nobel Prize in medicine for treating lupus vulgaris (tuberculosis of the skin) with concentrated light rays.2. Now that’s a therapy with some heavy-duty lineage!

So how does phototherapy work? The ultraviolet radiation generated by the sun, particularly ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB), can be used for treatment in phototherapy. Although sunlight is an inexpensive, accessible, and low-tech form of therapy, its variations with time, season, place, and atmospheric factors can sometimes be a deterrent for focused therapy. There is also a need for filtered sunlight sans the harmful radiations. While science is still testing out workarounds, phototherapy treatments are usually administered in a hospital walk-in cabinet with fluorescent light. The eyes and male genitalia are protected during treatment.3

There are 3 major types of phototherapy: broadband UVB where the full UVB spectrum is used for treatment; narrowband UVB in which only a part of the UVB spectrum is used for treatment; and PUVA or photochemotherapy, in which a chemical (psoralen) that magnifies the effect of UVA is combined with UVA radiation. PUVA is a stronger form of treatment and is usually used on people who are not responding to UVB.4

Applications Of Phototherapy

Phototherapy has been found to be useful in treating various disorders.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): SAD is a kind of depression that usually occurs when you get daylight for a shorter period (for example, during winter). Phototherapy has been found to work here because light triggers the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with mood disorders.5

Skin Conditions: Ultraviolet light can reduce skin inflammation and is used to treat many skin disorders. UVB especially is considered an effective treatment to clear many common skin conditions such as atopic eczema, psoriasis, lichen planus, and generalized itching. It has also been found useful in vitiligo and cutaneous T cell lymphoma.6

Neonatal Jaundice: In certain cases of jaundice in newborns, phototherapy can lower bilirubin (a yellow waste product that needs to be cleared from the body) levels in the blood through photo-oxidation. During photo-oxidation, bilirubin gets converted into a form that can be broken down and removed easily by the liver.7

Sleep Problems: Phototherapy can be useful in treating some sleep disorders such as insomnia. Our internal clock, which affects our body temperature, hormonal balance, and sleep cycles, is set by exposure to light. People who experience a shift in their circadian rhythms often face sleep problems (say, due to jet lag, working night shifts etc). Focused light therapy can help to reset the clock, advancing or delaying the sleep cycle so it falls back into a rhythm. If you tend to stay up late and wake up late (delayed sleep phase disorder), exposure to bright light early in the morning can help. On the other hand, if you sleep early and wake up very early (advanced sleep phase disorder), exposure to bright light in the evening can be used. Your doctor will be able to determine what works best in your particular case.8

Vitamin D Deficiency: A healthy dose of sunlight helps in the production of the “sunshine vitamin” D. Low levels of vitamin D are associated with poor bone health (rickets in children, and osteoporosis and osteomalacia in adults) and muscle weakness. This is also implicated in a host of other health problems from cognitive decline to even cancer.9 Vitamin D deficiency is usually treated with supplements. But for people who have problems absorbing supplements, phototherapy using UVB radiation under the guidance of a trained practitioner can help.10

Light Limits

Phototherapy can sometimes have short-term side effects such as sunburn-like symptoms (redness with discomfort), itchy or dry skin, cold sores, and blisters. Frequent treatment may also increase your risk for skin cancer and cause skin aging. PUVA is not advisable during pregnancy.11

If you have an increased risk for eye problems (diabetics, for instance) phototherapy might not be a good idea. People with bipolar mood disorder should also avoid phototherapy as it could trigger a manic episode.12 It is always best to check with your doctor to ensure this treatment works for you.

Healing With Light In Alternative Medicine

Chromotherapy uses light of specific colors to heal disorders. According to this centuries-old concept, certain areas of the body are associated with particular colors. These areas are similar to “chakras”, which are spheres of concentrated energy located along the spinal cord according to ancient Indian tradition. Chromotherapy believes that exposure to light of a certain wavelength can provide healing energy to the body. For instance, blue light is used to treat eating disorders, addictions, and depression. Red light, which is at the other end of the spectrum, is used for healing wounds and treating constipation.13

References   [ + ]

1, 2. Hönigsmann, Herbert. “History of phototherapy in dermatology.” Photochemical & photobiological sciences 12, no. 1 (2013): 16-21.
3, 4, 6, 11. Phototherapy, British Association of Dermatologists.2015.
5. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – Treatment, National Health Service, UK.2015.
7. Treating jaundice in newborn babies, National Health Service, UK. 2015.
8, 12. Pigeon, Wilfred R. “Diagnosis, prevalence, pathways, consequences & treatment of insomnia.” The Indian journal of medical research 131 (2010): 321.
9. Vitamin D and the Sun, British Association of Dermatologists. 2013
10. Bogh, M. K. B., J. Gullstrand, A. Svensson, Bo Ljunggren, and Mozhgan Dorkhan. “Narrowband ultraviolet B three times per week is more effective in treating vitamin D deficiency than 1600 IU oral vitamin D3 per day: a randomized clinical trial.” British Journal of Dermatology 167, no. 3 (2012): 625-630.
13. Azeemi, Samina T. Yousuf, and Mohsin Raza. “A critical analysis of chromotherapy and its scientific evolution.” Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2, no. 4 (2005): 481-488.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.