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t was an arresting image: Four children, wearing black masks to protect their eyes, sitting in front of large lamps. The caption placed them at London’s Institute of Ray Therapy, which opened in 1930.

The old photo got us thinking about light therapy, then and now. A hundred years ago, it was all the rage; in addition to the Institute of Ray Therapy, London also boasted a Municipal Sunlight Clinic. The concept seems to be coming back in vogue now; celebrities from Jennifer Aniston to Lady Gaga have been touting the benefits of sweating it out under infrared lights in a steamy sauna.

A little digging through old medical journals (and, yes, modern search engines) turned up an array of therapies based on artificial light. Here, some of our favorites uses for the humble lamp:

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Strengthening fragile bones

Beginning in the late 1800s, it wasn’t unusual to go to a hospital and see small groups of children and babies, wearing little more than protective goggles, sitting around under or in front of what was essentially a giant sunlamp. The ultraviolet light was meant to treat a condition called rickets, which causes the bones to soften. In the most severe cases, children with rickets develop bowed legs. The condition is caused by a severe vitamin D deficiency; doctors thought high doses of ultraviolet light would help by spurring the children’s bodies to synthesize vitamin D. And there’s some anecdotal evidence that it did make a difference.

The treatment became less common after 1932, when the U.S. began adding vitamin D to milk. Doctors also realized that it actually doesn’t take much sun to get enough vitamin D, as long as there’s some skin exposure.

Smoothing blemished skin

Doctors have long used forms of near-infrared, ultraviolet, and laser therapy to treat skin conditions. It’s an easy sell to patients who feel disfigured by conditions like cystic acne, psoriasis, eczema, vitiligo, and skin lesions. To this day, light therapy is marketed as an outpatient treatment for many dermatological woes.

Somewhere along the way, though, marketers got the idea that they could sell light as having broader beautifying effects. Beauty Angel, a company based in Germany, boasts that standing inside one of its infrared light machines makes you pretty by building up collagen, reducing fine lines, and softening the skin. Small studies have found some improvements in the skin appearance of healthy patients exposed to various light therapies (including LED lights and infrared diode treatment).

But when celebrities claim that relaxing in an infrared sauna can rejuvenate cells and flush out toxins, they’re way overselling the science.

Improving mental health

It’s debatable whether light therapy can make you look good, but studies show that it can make you feel good — or better, anyway. Recent studies provide evidence that light therapy can improve symptoms of depression in college students, pregnant women, and other adults. A 2016 study found that even among patients already taking antidepressants, those who added bright light to their regimen found more relief.

There’s now a whole market for “light therapy” boxes to treat seasonal affective disorder (depression that surfaces in the low-light seasons of fall and winter). They sell for anywhere from $25 to $300.

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  • A very interesting article with great history. Everyone should know that sun exposure is now, and has always been, essential to optimal human health. Consider the following: The latest U.S. research shows that sunscreen use is leading to widespread vitamin D deficiency, and sun deprivation, not sun exposure, is leading to 336,000 deaths yearly. There has also been an 8,300% increase in vitamin D deficiency in children since 2000, which is likely due to insufficient time playing outdoors and/or sunscreen use. So you see, all of this “protection” may be fatal. In addition, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has just released information that 73% of sunscreens don’t work and some may be counterproductive. You should also realize that as sun exposure has decreased by about 90% since 1935, melanoma has increased by 3,000%! A 20-year Swedish study demonstrated a 23% reduced risk of all-cause death among those women who used sunbeds (tanning beds). Overall, women who actively sought the sun had half the risk of death compared to those who avoided the sun. Here are a few more positive effects of sun exposure:
    •A 20-year Swedish study shows that sun avoidance is as bad for the health as cigarette smoking.
    •A Spanish study shows that women who seek the sun have one-eleventh the hip-fracture risk as those who avoid sun.
    •Men who work outdoors have half the risk of melanoma as those who work indoors.
    •Women who avoid the sun have 10-times the risk of breast cancer as those who embrace the sun.
    •Women who sunbathe regularly have half the risk of death during a 20-year period compared to those who stay indoors.
    •Sun exposure increases nitric oxide production, which leads to a decrease in heart disease risk.
    •Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is essential to human survival, and sun exposure is the only natural way to obtain it. Sunbathing can produce up to 20,000 units of vitamin D in 20 minutes of whole-body exposure around noon
    •Sun exposure dramatically improves mood through the production of serotonin and endorphin.
    • Sun exposure increases the production of BDNF, which is vital to human health.
    For references and articles see the Sunlight Institute website: http://sunlightinstitute.org/

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