Can orange light therapy really help people who have serious mental disorders, like those who hear voices and see things that aren’t there? Or people who are thinking about committing suicide?
A center in Norway has joined the ranks of only a very few where the windows and lamps are equipped with orange filters. The goal of the emergency psychiatric center in Trondheim is to reduce medications in their patients, even for the seriously mentally ill.
Håvard Kallestad, a researcher in NTNU’s Department of Mental Health, and his team, who are incorporating a special light treatment into the new emergency psychiatric center at St. Olavs Hospital in Trondheim, Kallestad, said in a statement:
“Emergency psychiatric care hasn’t seen much new thinking about treatment approaches. We’re trying to do something about that.”
The easiest way to understand this is to get a better understanding of how blue light, sleep, and nightly rhythms affect us as human beings.
Damage to the body’s internal clock
Before the invention of the electric light, the Sun was humans only source of light; people in the past would have had the flicker of a fire or would have simply gone to bed. However, ever since the invention of the electric light, people have looked forward to being able to do much more during the night.
The artificial light affects people in different ways, with some paying quite a high price. It is widely accepted that too much light during the wrong time of day can damage the body’s circadian rhythm (body’s internal clock). Now, it is also understood that when you disrupt your circadian rhythm, it can make you physically and mentally ill.
However, we must understand that light isn’t just light — it has different wavelengths of red, yellow, and blue. While regular daylight has many shades of blue in it, when the Sun is about to set, the color of the light that we perceive changes to mostly pink and orange, without much blue in it.
The pros and cons of blue light
Blue light is the main element of sunlight, and exposure to it in the morning signals our brain that it’s time to wake by switching off the sleep hormone melatonin, which is why the morning sun is so important for adjusting to jet lag. It is also why bright light treatment in the morning can help against winter depression and the feeling of powerlessness.
While we surround ourselves with electronic devices like phones, computers, and televisions that also emit blue light, the body will not produce the hormone melatonin. Therefore, even if it’s dark outside, you don’t feel sleepy. This, in turn, can worsen and increase the risk of developing various mental illnesses.
The camping experiment
Having a lot of electronics that contain blue light around us during the evening will, on a biological level, keep us awake much longer than if using just a candle or fireplace. Kallestad explained how some research proved that removing blue light at night is better, saying:
“In fact, some American researchers took a group of research subjects on a three-day camping trip. They had no artificial lighting there, just a lot of daylight during the day and darkness at night.
“Over the three days, the patients became significantly more attuned to the sun’s rhythm.”
Bipolar patients tested using orange glasses
In a small Norwegian study consisting of 23 people who were hospitalized for bipolar disorder, scientists assigned 12 to wear “blue-blocking” amber glasses during their waking hours from 6 o’clock in the evening to 8 o’clock in the morning for one week. The control group wore clear glasses; no changes were made to any of the patient’s medications.
The study found improvements were noticeable after only three nights of wearing the sunglasses. However, a significant difference between the two groups was observed in only one week. Those wearing the amber-tinted glasses scored on average 14 points lower on a test used to measure mania known as the Young Mania Rating Scale.
According to a commentary accompanying the study, the result is more than twice what doctors consider being a “clinically significant difference” and is a “remarkably high effect size.” Study first author Tone Henriksen said:
“I was surprised by the magnitude of changes and the rapid onset of improvement.”
Kallestad agreed, saying:
“Their results were remarkable. The patients became significantly less manic than those who stayed in regular lighting conditions all afternoon and evening.
“At the new emergency center in Trondheim, you could say that the building has become the tinted glasses.
“We’ve taken everything we know about orange and blue light, and the importance of a good daily rhythm, and physically applied that knowledge to the building.”
Should we all use orange glasses?
This question becomes more important as we move to LED bulbs, which are beneficial for the environment, and as technology grows. As we have learned, the blue light around us can lead to some real health issues.
Kallestad confirms that yes, LEDs can have a harmful effect on our circadian rhythm. Dr. James Phelps, psychiatrist with Samaritan Health Services in Corvallis, Oregon, says although much is still to be learned about dark and light therapy, some psychiatrists are ready to recommend blue-blocking glasses:
“When you have a low-risk, almost no-cost treatment with high efficacy, it’s time to just use it.”
As more and more blue light is emitted around us, it will come time to make a change. You can put on orange glasses and use app’s that filter out blue light, or you can simply turn off the lights completely and go to sleep instead.
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