Is light therapy effective in fighting insomnia?

Light therapy commonly takes the form of exposure to a light therapy lamp, which is actually a panel that diffuses light. (©VM/76 news)

Each year, thanks to the approach of Winterthe subject of light therapy returns to the forefront of the media scene.

But it is often approached from the angle of seasonal depressionfor which it has demonstrated its effectiveness.

What about insomnia ? We put the question to Juliette Chambe*, general practitioner at Strasbourgspecialist in issues related to insomnia and light therapy.

Insomnia, what is it?

The definition of insomnia has “varied quite a bit” over time, says Ms. Chambe. According to the specialist, “what must be remembered is that it is above all a patient complaint“. To put it another way, insomnia is not defined on the basis of “biological or recording criteria” but on the basis of “the patient’s symptoms and complaints”.

Concretely, a person is said to be insomniac if he suffers from at least one of the following three symptoms : problems falling asleep, staying asleep (we are talking about people who wake up in the night and have trouble falling back to sleep), and waking up too early. Note that the patient can combine these three symptoms.

But this is not enough. For a person to be called an insomniac, these symptoms must have impact on his day. In other words, that it causes, for example, mood disorders, problems with concentration, memory or even drowsiness.

Light therapy, what is it?

Light therapy is the use of light to treat disorders. It commonly takes the form of exposure to a light therapy lamp**, which is typically a light-diffusing panel, designed to CE standards and with a UV filter so it is not harmful to the skin and the retina. They are found, in commerce, at prices ranging between 100 and 200 euros, in general.

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In light therapy, we play on four things: the intensity of light, its spectrum (its color, to popularize), the duration of exposure and the time of day when this exposure takes place.

In which areas has light therapy proven itself?

Juliette Chambe cites three areas for which light therapy has proven itself: seasonal depression, for some chronic depressions and for people suffering from jet lagwhich refers to fatigue due to jet lag***.

In the first case, resorting to light therapy “for at least 20 minutes upon waking allows you to start the day and to have a sufficient dose of light to improve the morale of people who suffer from seasonal depression”.

In the second, it was “demonstrated that light therapy would have an efficacy roughly equivalent to antidepressants for certain chronic depressions”.

Finally, in the last, light therapy helps to “reframe the falling asleep phase”.

What about insomnia?

In terms of insomnia, the effectiveness of light therapy remains to be demonstrated. Works exist, “but it’s not very clear at the moment“Summarizes Ms. Chamber. “A meta-analysis on the subject, published by the Dutch, shows that, overall, there is an effectiveness of light therapy in insomnia. But, if we look in detail, we observe that there are people for whom it does not work at all and others for whom it works, without us yet knowing very well on what criterion, ”points out Mrs Chamber.

The specialist outlines: “It would seem that light therapy is effective in combating insomnia, but it remains to be seen in which insomniac – because not all insomnia is alike – and how to put this light therapy into practice”.

For example, in insomnia in the elderly, it is often people who go to bed very early and who have a physiological phase shift, i.e. they will tend to go to bed more and more earlier and, as a result, waking up too early for their liking. There, there is a complaint of insomnia. Putting on light therapy at the end of the day will make it possible to postpone this phase of falling asleep and to maintain waking up a little later in the day.

Juliette ChamberGeneral practitioner specializing in insomnia and light therapy

A study conducted from Strasbourg

For her part, Juliette Chambe is currently leading a study that began last year, “Insolux”, which aims to find out if the light therapy is effective in chronic insomnia in general medicine. “The idea is not to take patients to the lab, put them in the light and see how they sleep. It is rather to know if we manage to improve the quality of sleep of patients by including light therapy in their daily life”. “The interest of evaluating it in the daily life of patients is to see if it is something that can be integrated into their life, because it is not like taking a pill in ten seconds, there, there is a small effort to be made on a daily basis”, underlines Ms. Chambe.

As it stands, it is too early to show the first results. Moreover, to carry out her study, the specialist needs 350 volunteer patients, where only about sixty people participate. If you are interested, you can write to [email protected] or call 03 88 11 50 06.

It should be noted that another study is carried out in parallel with that of Juliette Chambe, but which evaluates another type of light and which is carried out in a hospital environment. It is just starting (contact: [email protected] and such. : 03 88 11 64 30).

Find a natural alternation day / night

What we can say, as it stands, is that there is a close link between light, or rather its absence, and sleep.

Indeed, as Mrs Chambe reminds us, “we are animals that live on Earth, and which have adapted, genetically, at the pace of it which runs 24 hours, alternating day/night. We are generally diurnal animals, that is to say that we live by day and sleep at night. So our neuro-receptors, in particular at the level of the eye, are sensitive to this day/night alternation which makes it possible to differentiate between moments of activity and rest”.

And, quite basically, light therapy aims to “ find this natural alternation of day and night“, turned upside down by our modern lifestyles.

Light therapy, a way to explore

A priori, it therefore does not seem illogical to dig into the work concerning light therapy as a treatment for insomnia.

And this, all the more so since light therapy would represent a good alternative, where “it is estimated that 30% the number of insomniacs who take sleeping pills, often chronically“, sources of addiction and side effects.

*Juliette Chambe is a lecturer in the general medicine department at the University of Strasbourg (Unistra) and is part of the research team at the Center for Sleep Disorders at the University Hospital of Strasbourg.

**Without going into detail, other equipment exists. In short, the idea is to choose the equipment according to the patient, the desired effect and the use made of it.

*** “We could add some phase shift disorders, as can happen in particular in adolescence (in the same way as for jet-lag)”, points out Juliette Chambe.

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Is light therapy effective in fighting insomnia?