Heliotherapy: What Does It Consist Of?

Heliotherapy can treat skin, sleep, and mood disorders. Find out what it consists of, as well as other benefits and risks.
Heliotherapy: What Does It Consist Of?

Written by Daniela Andarcia

Last update: 26 April, 2023

Heliotherapy, phototherapy or light therapy is a healing method that consists of exposing oneself to sunlight or artificial light (fluorescent bulbs, halogen lights or light-emitting diodes), in order to treat various conditions.

In general, it’s believed that it has been practiced for more than 3500 years, since the ancient Egyptians used the sun’s rays to try to improve skin diseases such as vitiligo.

Modern heliotherapy was conceived by Niels Ryberg Finsen, who included artificial light sources when treating a case of lupus vulgaris. Since then, this practice has gained wide acceptance, so we’ll show you everything you need to know.

Uses and benefits of heliotherapy

Today, heliotherapy has been perfected and is the preferred option for alleviating a large number of conditions. Let’s take a look at it in detail.

1. Could treat skin disorders

Effectiveness of heliotherapy in various skin disorders
Some skin diseases can be treated with heliotherapy.

Heliotherapy may treat skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, vitiligo, itching, and even the symptoms of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. This process is characterized by using ultraviolet light to decrease the growth and inflammation of skin cells.

Also, there are three types of phototherapy for these conditions:

  • Broadband UVB radiation: According to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, this therapy could alleviate eczema and psoriasis using the full spectrum of ultraviolet-B radiation.
  • Narrowband UVB radiation: It’s the most used by dermatologists. In addition, although it only uses a small part of UVB radiation, it’s more intense than the previous one.
  • PUVA: This is a technique that’s based on combining high wavelength ultraviolet radiation (UVA) with a chemical called psoralen. It’s more intense than the previous ones and also causes side effects, so it’s only considered a last resort.

Now, keep in mind that the effects of heliotherapy on skin conditions are temporary. So you must undergo numerous sessions to maintain them over time.

2. It could alleviate sleep and mood disorders

According to some studies, heliotherapy is recommended for those with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and circadian sleep rhythm disorders. These are the details:

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Also known as seasonal depression, this disorder is caused by seasonal changes and usually begins in the fall and continues throughout the winter.

Light therapy for SAD requires using a special light box that emits soft light at a standard wavelength. However, it should be noted that it could cause a number of side effects such as fatigue, headache, insomnia, irritability, and hyperactivity.

Since these effects are minimal and temporary, it’s one of the most recommended treatments for due to how easy and inexpensive it is.

Circadian sleep rhythm disorders

According to a study published in Sleep Medicine Clinics, heliotherapy can help people with circadian rhythm sleep disorders. This is the case of delayed sleep phase syndrome.

Of course, the exposure to light needs to be done at a specific time, so a specialist is the most recommended person to determine this, after they have evaluated a series of individual symptoms.

3. It could be a treatment for cancers and pre-cancers

There’s scientific evidence that photodynamic therapy (PDT) can treat some types of cancer and precancer. This consists of combining a drug, known as a photosensitizer, with a special light, since when photosensitizers are exposed to a specific wavelength of light, they can kill the closest cells.

This drug is usually applied topically and is absorbed by both normal and cancer cells. However, it’s estimated that this is concentrated in the latter because they tend to divide more quickly. In addition, normal cells eliminate it more quickly.

It’s at this time, when the photosensitizer has left the healthy cells, that the light is applied to the area to be treated. This is because activated oxygen is created and this kills cancer cells.

4. Lowers the level of bilirubin in newborn babies

For more than six decades, phototherapy has been used to treat jaundice. This is the yellowing of the skin, eyes, and other body tissues that’s caused by high levels of bilirubin in the blood (hyperbilirubinemia).

According to a study published in Current Pediatric Reviews, phototherapy is effective in reducing bilirubin levels in the baby’s blood. This is because bilirubin absorbs light and proceeds to break down into substances that the newborn’s body is capable of processing and excreting.

There are two ways to perform this therapy on babies. In the first and most common, the eyes are covered and placed under halogen bulbs or fluorescent lamps. In the second, implemented in premature babies or those who have been treated with conventional lights, biliblankets are used, fiber optic blankets that illuminate the baby’s body with blue light.

Other potential uses of heliotherapy

According to studies published in the International Journal of Ophthalmology and Clinical Drug Investigation, heliotherapy may also help treat medical problems such as diabetic retinopathy and alopecia.

Heliotherapy side effects

Adverse effects of heliotherapy.
Paradoxically, repetitive exposure to this therapy can have harmful effects.

Heliotherapy has a number of risks that need to be considered. For starters, ultraviolet rays can cause skin damage at the molecular level leading to premature aging called photoaging.

Also, being exposed to large amounts of ultraviolet light can increase the propensity for skin cancer. Therefore, the longer the sessions and the clearer your skin, the greater the risk.

The frequency of these treatments is linked to immunosuppression; that is, it can suppress the immune system, so that the body is more prone to developing diseases.

Performing treatments such as PUVA or PDT can make your eyes more sensitive to light. If they aren’t well protected during the procedure, eye damage is likely from exposure to sunlight or other types of bright lights.

Who should avoid light therapy?

If you coincide with any of the following cases, avoid heliotherapy and inform your doctor in advance if:

  • You’re pregnant or breastfeeding
  • You have a family history of skin cancer
  • You have liver disease
  • You’re a patient with systemic lupus erythematosus

Heliotherapy, a widely accepted healing method

Heliotherapy is a type of medical treatment that uses sunlight or artificial light to alleviate a significant number of diseases.

There’s scientific evidence that this healing method is related to the improvement of skin, sleep, and mood disorders, as well as cancer, pre-cancer, high levels of bilirubin, and jaundice.

However, care must be taken with the frequency of UV exposure. This can cause premature aging of the skin, increase the risk of developing cancer in this organ and cause cataracts.

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