Light up your life

By Laura Mappas
Thursday, October 9, 2008

If you need an instant energy boost or are looking for a quick-fix to a pesky health problem, a little ray of sunshine might be your best bet.

Radical light therapy treatment has been known to cure bacterial infections, such as acne, through to more serious skin conditions, plus also help with depression and even assist in the treatment of cancer.

What is light therapy?

This miracle treatment, which is often called phototherapy, is the exposure to daylight or specific wavelengths of light for a certain length of time and, in some cases, at certain times of the day.

Scientists have found that a lack of sunlight interrupts the body's natural circadian rhythms, which is the body's inner clock that helps to govern sleep patterns, hormone production, body temperature and other biological functions. By using light therapy, the circadian rhythms are kept in sync and the production of the night-time hormone melatonin and the daytime hormone serotonin are adequately administered.

How does light therapy work?

Who knew that a few rays of super-strength light could improve energy and even help to beat the blues? Well, according to Dr George Brainard's team at Thomas Jefferson Medical University in Philadelphia in the US, it can. So how does it work? Dr Brainard says the exposure to specialised bright light stimulates the production of certain feel-good brain chemicals that relieve the symptoms associated with depression, making you more active, energetic and alert.

When waves of light enter the eye a nerve that connects the retina to the hypothalamus region of the brain is activated. The hypothalamus then sends a signal to the pineal gland, which immediately suppresses the production of melatonin (a hormone that prepares the body for sleep) while at the same time stimulating the production the energy-boosting hormone serotonin.

The light is absorbed by the skin and the underlying tissue, stimulating cell activity, relaxing muscles, accelerating healing and increasing blood circulation. An increase in circulation also promptly removes toxins from the injured tissue and replaces them with energy and vitamins.

DIY light therapy

Of course, you could just get some good old-fashioned sunshine. But if long rainy days make it difficult to catch some rays, manufactured light boxes — which make the job of re-setting your circadian rhythm that little bit easier — might be the way to go. These boxes contain high-intensity fluorescent tubes which provide the user with the adequate amount of light exposure. They don't come cheaply though, to get your hands on some of this artificial light you'll have to fork out around $375-630.

What are the health benefits?

Where do we start? There is a long list of conditions that light therapy is said to cure, ranging from acne, psoriasis and eczema to improved circulation, sleep disorders and depression. And just when you thought it couldn't get any better, studies have also shown that as well as improving circulation and boosting energy stores, improved cell function also stimulates the production of collagen and elastin. This makes light therapy a great natural anti-ageing alternative.

Some scientists are even heralding the bright new therapy as part of a cure for cancer. British lung cancer survivor Don Moulden is testament to their claims. Just two years ago Moulden was told that he had incurable lung cancer, but after undergoing photodynamic therapy (PDT) — a form of specialised light treatment — he has now been given the all-clear. Seventy-six-year-old Moulden was treated with a trial drug called photofin, which is absorbed by all of the cells in the body but is only activated by light. Once activated, the drug kills the cancer cells by depriving them of oxygen.

It is also believed that this new treatment will be able to treat tuberculosis and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

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