Light Therapy May Help Anorexics

Sunny days of spring and summer can banish winter blues. Being outdoors at this time of year can greatly brighten your spirits, especially if you are depression-prone. And recent research indicates that light therapy holds particular promise for anorexics and other eating disorder sufferers.

Licensed psychologist and sleep specialist Gila Lindsley, Ph.D. has written a very thoughtful article on this treatment for New Technology Publishing, Inc. According to Lindsley, winter depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is caused by lack of sunlight during the winter months. When days are short and cold, people tend to stay indoors and not get enough full-spectrum illumination. Some winter depressions can drive patients to suicide, notes Lindsley.

According to Whole Healthmd (WHMD), light is essential for maintaining the body’s sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythms. WHMD explains that light entering the eye becomes electrical impulses which travel from the optic nerve to the brain, releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters. One of these, serotonin, is important to emotional well-being, observes WHMD.

While light triggers the production of serotonin, which is associated with good mental health, it suppresses the release of melatonin, observes Lindsley. Melatonin is a hormone secreted from the pineal gland at the base of the brain. With less light, more melatonin accumulates in the bloodstream. According to Lindsley, lower body temperature, sleep and high levels of melatonin are associated in a way that is not yet fully understood. She notes that melatonin levels rise at night and play a possible role in triggering sleep. Research indicates that people vulnerable to SAD are particularly affected by lack of broad-spectrum light, says Lindsley. When these people do not get outdoors enough, their blood melatonin levels are high during the day, and they appear sluggish and depressed.

American Wholehealth cites research indicating a link between SAD and eating disorders. According to this 1996 study, which was published in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, of 47 patients diagnosed with SAD, twelve or 25.5 percent had eating disorders.

According to WHMD, the best way to get light is by staying outside for 30 minutes. WHMD notes that even on an overcast day, the sun provides adequate full-spectrum light.

When getting outdoors is not possible, the next best method, according to WHMD, is use of a light box fitted with high-intensity bulbs which simulate natural sunlight. Light therapy, which has been successfully used since the late 1980’s, can be administered by a physician, physical therapist, psychologist, or— with professional instruction— by the patient herself, notes WHMD. Sessions usually last 15-20 minutes.

WHMD notes that patients should never look directly into the light, which is 15 times brighter than normal home or office illumination. In addition, the site warns that certain people should avoid this therapy. These include persons with highly sensitive skin or eyes, or those with ocular diseases such as cataracts, glaucoma, or retinal detachment.

A 1998 study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders and reported by followed a 17 year-old girl for two years. She suffered from an anorexia-like illness for which she had to be hospitalized twice. During her second hospitalization, she was treated with light therapy. The researchers reported that within days, her mood and eating significantly improved. Within a month, according to the study, her depression decreased from severe to mild/moderate.

Research reported by American Wholehealth and published in the journal Psychiatry Resident, involved a double-blind study of eighteen bulimic women randomly assigned to an experimental group receiving bright light, or a placebo group receiving dim light, administered in the early evening for one week. Subjects in the experimental group showed significant mood improvement compared with those in the placebo group. The experimental subjects returned to pretreatment depression levels after light therapy was discontinued. However, the study reported that the treatment had no effect on binge eating episodes.

Lindsley offers several suggestions for avoiding the winter blues. These include advance planning of fall and winter activities; exposing yourself to as much light as possible; keeping physically active; and seeking professional help at the first signs of depression.

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