August 9, 2007

Dark Therapy: A Possible Treatment For Bipolar Disorder

Insight Journal, which is an online resource maintained by the National Center for Health and Wellness, provided a short article on a possible new complementary treatment for bipolar disorder - dark therapy.

It's fairly well known that "light therapy" is sometimes used to help those suffering from depression, especially seasonal affective disorder. This type of mood disorder occurs when people are sensitive to the changes in natural light through the seasons. They are exposed to bright lights for certain amount of time each day, and research has shown that bright light can activate the production of serotonin. A depletion of serotonin is often considered the main neurotransmitter cause of depression.

It's clear that sleep/wake cycles are effected by bipolar disorder, and that disruptions in those cycles can exacerbate the disorder. Bipolar disorder does cause problems with the persons sleeping and waking cycles-but its more complicated than depression, you have a manic symptom as well. Also, research and many people’s personal experiences have found that lack of sleep can increase symptoms.

"Dark therapy" is much the opposite of light therapy. It focuses on exposing people to complete darkness – blocking blue spectrum lights (florescent, incandescent and LED). The theory is that spending this time in complete darkness with help reset the circadian rhythm (the body's natural sleep/wake rhythm) to a more normal level.

There isn't a lot of research for this complementary therapy yet. Recently "researchers at the Corvallis Psychiatric Clinic in Corvallis, Oregon studied what they called "virtual darkness," or artificial darkness created by amber lenses."

Dr. Jim Phelps of, and the Corvallis Psychiatric Clinic believes that dark therapy is beneficial in treating rapid cycling, and other symptoms of bipolar disorder. He believes that its one of the easiest things, with the least amount of side effects that someone with bipolar disorder can do to decrease the need for medications. Though he does not say to stop medications, but it may be good to augment medications with dark therapy.

They found that the 14 hours (6pm-8am) necessary for an effect was very inconvenient for the participants. Not only is that a long time, but its also difficult to maintain an environment of complete darkness for that long. They decided that instead of created full darkness they would used an amber lens to block the blue spectrum lights.

"This produced the effects of total darkness while allowing the patients to see and carry on evening activities. The key to dark therapy isn't necessarily to sleep for a full 14 hours. Instead, the bipolar patient would sleep for 8 of those hours and maintain light activity in virtual darkness for the other 6 hours. Using an amber lens to block the blue light allows for this light activity."

Further research is needed, and there is no evidence yet that this therapy will replace medications, but it is interesting to note that researchers are finding that non drug treatment can have significant effects.

Keeping bipolar disorder in the dark may just do the trick Insight Journal.

More Resources:

Bipolar Disorder and Sleep

Wake and Light Therapy for Bipolar Disorder Depression

Dark therapy for mania: a pilot study.

Bipolar Disorder, Light, and Darkness: Treatment Implications


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