Light Therapy Shows Promise as Bipolar Disorder Treatment
> 1/4/2008 11:11:47 AM

Long recognized as an effective form of treatment for patients with Seasonal Affective Disorder and a number of common sleep problems, bright light therapy now appears to be a promising response to Bipolar Disorder as well. The procedure is quite simple: patients sit, eyes open, in front of a portable box filled with fluorescent bulbs or tubes for periods of anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours at least once a day. The "bright" light they emit, far more powerful than any indoor sources, is designed to mimic that of the sun with the ultimate goal of stabilizing the many physiological functions derailed by SAD, insomnia and depression. It may, in fact, prove more effective than medication for some patients, and variations on the light box or visor model allow for greater mobility and convenience.

Light therapies are most often applied to disorders stemming from irregularities in the body's circadian clock, a system centered in the brain's hypothalamus region that helps regulate sleep and other biological processes in 24-hour phases based around the sun's light cycle. The reason the treatment has proven so effective for many SAD cases is that the disorder stems in large part from variations in that rhythm caused by the changing seasons that most often occur near the winter solstice when periods of daily sunlight are shortest. The human body's response to natural light is so central to our physiological makeup that it doesn't require visual stimulation - said response occurs whether we actually see the light or not. The chemical effects of this light affect the close relationship between the circadian clock and the adrenal glands, structures responsible for releasing functional chemicals such as the steroid hormone cortisone. Cortisone travels through the bloodstream to help regulate physiological processes like stress response and metabolism, and bright light therapy has been shown to facilitate the release of cortisone by re-stimulating the inactive hypothalamus and adrenal glands, which may explain why it proves beneficial to patients suffering from Bipolar Disorder.

The topic has been explored before. But recent research is the first to focus specifically on light therapy and Bipolar Disorder. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh studied nine women suffering from the condition, assigning light boxes to each of them with take-home instructions to perform the therapy for daily periods of 15, 30 and 45 minutes. After a two-week progress report, those who responded well to the treatment continued for three or more months. The subject pool was divided into two groups: those who received the treatment in the morning and those who waited until mid-day. Surprisingly, more than 2/3 of the group reported significant symptomatic improvement at study's end, with those in the midday group considerably more satisfied with their eventual outcomes. Those who received their light therapy in the morning often felt emotionally confused, anxious or overstimulated, and this puzzling development most likely occurred due to the body's extreme sensitivity to early-morning light, particularly when it has been deprived of the sun by the seasons. Midday treatments served as a form of regeneration, helping to sustain patient's moods throughout the day with an afternoon boost. Once accustomed to the procedure, some of the women in the study group switched to morning therapy, leaving researchers to theorize that initial early-morning light exposure disrupted the more traditionally gradual circadian rhythms. Every patient continued with her medical regimen throughout the experiment, implying that the lights were, at least in some cases, more effective than traditional antidepressants.

Though many psychiatrists recommend light therapy as a possible treatment for certain patients, the FDA has yet to approved related devices as officially sanctioned treatments for mood disorders. Most related research projects have been only a few short weeks in length, but as accumulated studies like this one make bright light's benefits more clear, additional funding should go toward the development of more effective forms of the product designed to treat specific conditions. Bipolar Disorder is a frustratingly elusive illness and any form of therapy with a proven track record should be considered very carefully as a candidate for widespread use and professional prescription.

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