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Insomnia Treatment Option: Phototherapy

Light Box Use May Help You Sleep

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Updated February 10, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Insomnia Treatment Option: Phototherapy

A man uses a light box to treat his insomnia.

Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

You may have heard others talk about using a light box to treat their sleep disorders, but what is a light box and what conditions respond best to light therapy? Are there alternatives to purchasing an expensive light box?

To answer these questions, let’s review an excerpt from UpToDate -- a trusted electronic medical reference used by health care providers and patients alike. Then, read on for additional information about what all of this means for you.

"Phototherapy, also called light therapy, is an effective therapy for people whose insomnia is due to a problem called delayed sleep phase syndrome. People with this disorder have a problem with their body's 'sleep clock' such that they have a difficult time falling asleep until much later in the evening or night than they wish (and therefore wake up later than they wish in the next morning).

"Phototherapy involves sitting in front of a specially designed light box for 30 to 40 minutes after waking up. In less severe cases, waking up consistently at a given time in the morning, followed by physical activity with exposure to bright light (eg, a walk outside), may be sufficient. Alternately, you may sit in an area with bright sunshine (eg, near a window or on a porch). The exposure to bright light at specific times helps to reset the body's sleep clock."

As mentioned above, light therapy can effectively be used to treat a type of insomnia that consists of difficulty falling asleep at night and desiring to sleep in the next morning. This is a disorder of the timing of processes in the body, including sleep. This timing is called the circadian rhythm. Circadian refers to the fact that these rhythms repeat over a period of time that is nearly a day in length. When there are problems with your circadian rhythm, you may develop one of the circadian rhythm sleep disorders.

One of these circadian rhythm sleep disorders is delayed sleep phase syndrome. The sleep phase is the prolonged period of time that you spend asleep. If this occurs when you want it to (typically during the night), you are said to have a normal sleep phase. If your desire for sleep is delayed, resulting in difficulty sleeping early in the night and difficulty awakening, you have delayed sleep phase syndrome. Some people who complain of insomnia have this condition. Alternatively, some people fall asleep too early in the evening and awaken too early in the morning. This is called advanced sleep phase syndrome.

There are several treatment options available for these conditions and one is the use of a light box. You may wonder what light box therapy is and how to use a light box. The light box produces a bright light that may help our body to stay aligned with the natural cycles of dark and light. This may be especially useful in the winter when darkness becomes prolonged. The use of a light box helps to reinforce your body’s natural circadian rhythm.

If you and your doctor decide that a light box is right for you, you want to carefully choose a light box. For those who are already using one, there may be side effects of which you should be aware. As described above, there are some people who can simply enjoy exposure to natural light and get the same effects. There are also other alternative treatment options such as the use of melatonin.

For those who are experiencing insomnia from a misaligned circadian rhythm, light boxes may be just the thing that you need.

Want to learn more? See UpToDate's topic, "Insomnia Treatments," for additional in-depth medical information.

Source:

Bonnet, Michael et al. "Insomnia treatments." UpToDate. Accessed: October 2011.

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