© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Seasonal affective disorder to cell activation: UW-Milwaukee professor explains light therapy treatments

Close up of infrared lamp glowing in the dark with its warming red light to cure for example colds or tensions.
Stock Adobe
Close up of infrared lamp glowing in the dark with its warming red light to cure for example colds or tensions.

We’re in the deep freeze of winter. That, plus the limited daylight could be giving you a case of the winter blues, and perhaps you're even struggling with seasonal affective disorder.

Light therapy is a common treatment for these issues, and over the last decade this field has expanded to include different types of light, like red light, which can kick start damaged cells in our bodies.

To learn more about how light can be a healing tool, Janis Eells, a professor of biomedical sciences at UW-Milwaukee shares more. Eells notes the difference between diagnosing seasonal affective disorder versus the winter blues.

"Really, seasonal affective disorder is when it actually becomes a problem that actually needs to be dealt with in terms of treatment. The treatment can be as simple as really increasing your time outside," says Eells.

She says that lights that are 10,000 lux can be helpful in treating seasonal affective disorder because the lights are almost as bright as the sun, with exception that ultraviolet light is removed to not harm your eyes. "You're not really supposed to look at that light. You're supposed to have it off to the side, and just work for about 20 minutes with it," says Elles.

Eells says light therapy is nothing new and has been used for centuries. Its effects can be similar to the process of photosynthesis. Yet, the study around it is constantly being analyzed and changing. Different wavelengths of light have different reactions, with red and near infrared light specifically interacting with the mitochondria in your cells according to Eells.

She says research has shown that a short exposure of 60 to 120 seconds to red light can help your body work better.
"[Red light] interacts with mitochondria in your cells and mitochondria are the batteries that basically run us. They do more than that, they direct a lot of aspects of how the cell functions. The red light turns on mitochondrial activity," Eells says.

The red light activates a signaling pathway in your cells that turns on a type of protective response, she adds. "It turns on these things call transcription factors that tell your DNA to make more RNA to make more protein and to make things work better. It's really a repair mechanism — it only really works if something's broken," Eells explains.

So far, she says red light therapy has been studied in treatments for heart disease, wound healing, Alzheimers, Parkinson's, skeletal muscle injury and eye diseases.

While light therapy can seem like it's too good to be true, Eells says it's important to remember that there is a right timing and dosage that should be considered when using light therapy.

"It's like a drug you actually have. You have to have the appropriate dose and colleagues of mine and I are now trying to define this more as what we call a phytoceutical, to get it into the medical community a little bit better," Eells says.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
Related Content