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Living Well in the cITy

Light Therapy - Life under a Simulated Sun

Deep in our brains is the pineal glad. It is responsible for creating a hormone called melatonin. When melatonin enters our system it causes drowsiness and this regulates our sleep-wake cycle by making us sleep. Typically melatonin production peaks around 12 AM and diminishes 8 hours later when it is flushed through our liver. In our eyes are photosensitive ganglion cells that tell the pineal glad to generate melatonin in the absence of light. Particularly blue light. This is why melatonin in known as a sleep regulator (and it also happens to be an antioxidant). In nature, blue light waves are present in daytime sunlight.

There was a time when getting enough sunlight was not a problem for people. But with the 9 to 5 urban lifecycle, getting a healthy amount of sunlight during the day is difficult. Office lighting never operates at the frequency or intensity required to simulate the affects of sunlight on our retinas. To make matters worse, during colder months we get outside even less, reducing our exposure even more. Not only does this impact our sleep cycle, but it can also affect us psychologically in the form of SAD or seasonal affective disorder.

Heliotherapy, more commonly known as light therapy, has been used to combat the effects of sunlight deficiencies in our daily lives. Simply put, it involves exposing oneself to a certain wavelength and intensity of light for part of the day. The best wavelengths for correcting sleep disorders is around 470nm (blue light) but wavelengths up to 520nm (green light) have also be have also been shown to be beneficial.

One particular use for light therapy is to correct sleep disorders known as Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome or DSPS. Someone suffering from this will have their entire sleep cycle shifted or offset by a number of hours. To combat this problem with light therapy, a light source is used in the morning just before waking. Or in the case of DSPS, at a time when the individual should be waking. The reception of blue light at the instant of waking is suppose to trigger the photoreceptive ganglion cells in the retina to signal the pineal gland to halt the production of melatonin thereby inhibiting sleep. In theory, over time this should adjust the sleep phase to a more normal hour, bringing it in line with our other biological cycles.

Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that affects some people during the winter months and it is thought to be related to light exposure. Similar applications of light therapy used to combat sleep disorders have been proven to be affect at reducing the effects of SAD. Sitting in front of a light box, a device used in light therapy, for just 30 minutes during the day can help greatly. But it doesn't work for everyone. If you suspect you suffer from SAD your best course of action is to consult a doctor. Know the symptoms, understand the problem and seek out the best therapy that works for you.

Lamps for generating light necessary for light therapy are easy to come by. They are commonly known as light boxes and essentially bright lamps that emit a light that appear similar to natural daylight. The ideal intensity for these lamps is 10,000 lux and they employ a diffused shade to spread the light uniformly. You don't have to look right at the light, just be facing it's general direction so the light rays passes into your eye. Inside these lamps are nothing more than high efficiency fluorescent light tubes with electronic ballasts and polished reflectors.

A more portable solution is a lamp that uses blue LED technology. LEDs are solid state devices that emit light. They are used quite commonly now in lighting products and blue is a popular colour. The advantage of an LED device is that the wavelength of the light emitted will be much more focused within a particular wavelength range which means the higher intensity required by the daylight emitting devices is not necessary. LED light products are lighter and quite portable.

To combat sleep disorders it is helpful to have a light therapy device integrated with your alarm clock. These let you trigger the lights to come on just before waking you and remain on for a set time after the alarm has gone off.

Light therapy devices can be quite expensive. There are other alternatives to help you get the light you need during the day when you need it. The next time you buy light bulbs, shop around for compact fluorescents that emit a spectrum closer to natural daylight and use them throughout your home. Marine aquarium hobbyists have been using actinic lighting for years to provide corals with a light similar to what they receive in the ocean. Actinic lights emit a bluish light and should be easy to come by. As important as light therapy is for inhibiting melatonin, blocking blue light to encourage it's production is also helpful when trying to sleep. Computer monitors and television screens can emit a certain amount of low spectrum light and they should be avoided if you are having problems sleeping at night. If at all possible, the best form of light therapy is getting outside into the sunlight for part of the day. If you have to work indoors, try to work by a window. Enjoy as much natural light as you can get. The benefits of being outside in the sunlight for part of the day go far beyond light therapy.