What Is It?
Color therapy is the use of color in a variety of ways to promote health and healing. The different colors we see in the world around us are the result of the eye perceiving light vibrating at different frequencies. Sunlight, or full-spectrum light, holds all the wavelengths of color in the visible spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, and magenta) as well as infrared and ultraviolet light, which cannot be seen. Used to treat both physical and emotional problems, color therapy may involve exposure to colored lights, massages using color-saturated oils, contemplating and visualizing colors, even wearing colored clothing and eating colored foods.
Not surprisingly, color has played a role in healing for centuries. At the temple of Heliopolis in ancient Egypt, patients were treated in rooms specifically designed to break up the sun’s rays into the colors of the spectrum. People also made regular pilgrimages to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the world, to take advantage of the healing colors of the exotic plants and flowers found there. In India, practitioners of Ayurveda (now the oldest health-care system in the world), taught that specific colors corresponded with each of the seven chakras, the energy centers that represent organs, emotions, and aspects of the spirit. (Today Ayurvedic medicine continues to use color today to treat a wide range of mental and physical imbalances.)
It wasn’t until the late 17th century, however, that modern-day color theory was born. when English philosopher and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton conducted his prism experiments and showed that light is truly a mixture of colors from the visible spectrum.
Although doctors used color to treat everything from psychological problems to smallpox over the next hundred years, interest in color’s effects on healing didn’t really pick up until 1878, when Dr. Edwin D. Babbitt published his book Principles of Light and Color. Here he described his work in chromatotherapy (healing with colored lights), suggesting it as a treatment for a variety of ailments, including burns, nervous excitability, and cold in the extremities.
Probably the most extensive and detailed work on colored light therapy, however, was done by Dr. Dinshah P. Ghadiali (1873-1966), a naturalized American from India, who had studied Babbitt’s work. The doctor spent many years researching the effects of color on disease and developing colored filters. In 1920, he introduced a system of colored lights, which he sold under the name “Spectro-Chrome” lamps. Touted as a treatment for such diseases as diabetes, tuberculosis, and chronic gonorrhea, the healing lamps were considered preposterous by many M.D.s and miraculous by others who claimed success with them. Although controversial (Dinshah spent much time in court defending his product), his work continues to inspire many color therapists today.
In 1947, Swiss psychologist Dr. Max Lüscher introduced the Lüscher Color Test, a form of color therapy still widely used by many psychologists. The test consists of choosing 43 colors from a total of 73 possibilities, although there are simpler variations. By observing the colors a person chooses or rejects, the therapist can learn a good deal about a subject’s psychological state. For example, if a person selects darker colors, it suggests a need for rest and stress reduction.
At about the same time, Russian researcher S.V. Krakov was conducting a series of experiments in which he separated the different wavelengths in the light spectrum to show how color can affect the nervous system. He observed that red light stimulated the adrenal glands, raising blood pressure and pulse rate, and that blue and white light had a calming effect. Although there are still no rigorous studies supporting Krakov’s work, many practitioners today commonly recommend color therapy for stress and for stress-related pain.
In recent years interest in color therapy has grown as studies have shown the positive effects of full-spectrum light on seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and other forms of depression. Mainstream researchers are looking into its use for a variety of other ailments as well, from sleep disorders to hormonal problems.
More unusual color therapies also continue to be utilized. Over the past decade Aura-Soma (an Eastern-influenced therapy that uses colored bottles of essential oils and extracts to shed light on a person’s “true inner self”) has gained a following. And Esogetic Colorpuncture Therapy (ECT), which focuses colored light on acupuncture points, is being studied as a treatment for a variety of health problems, including migraines, bronchitis, and uterine fibroids.
How Does It Work?
Color is a property of light, which consists of many different electromagnetic waves of energy. When light falls upon the photoreceptor cells of the retina, it is converted into electric impulses, which then travel to the brain and trigger the release of hormones.
It is well-established that the lack of sunlight experienced during the winter in northern climates causes depression in many people–a condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Daily exposure to full-spectrum light from a special bright-light box has been shown to improve SAD by suppressing daytime elevation of the hormone melatonin (a substance that promotes sleep) and increasing the amount of the mood-elevating brain chemical serotonin.
Proponents of color therapy reason that if light, as well as the absence of light, has such profound effects on health, then the individual colors that make up light must, too. No conclusive proof of this has ever been found, however.
What You Can Expect
Visiting a color therapist should be an enjoyable and relaxing experience. The treatment room should be warm and the chair or couch should be comfortable. The therapist should take your medical history, noting any drugs you may be on (see Cautions, below).
Unless you are seeking treatment for a psychological problem, you will probably be asked to don a robe. Or you may need to remove some clothing in order to expose certain areas of your body to colored lights.
Color therapists use a variety of techniques. Some shine beams of filtered light onto the part of the body being treated. Others use flashing colored lights. Still others shine a filtered and softened beam of colored light directly into the eyes. If the therapist prefers, colored silks may be used instead of lights.
If you are seeing a practitioner of Ayurvedic medicine, he’ll likely have a chart to explain the healing powers of the different colors and how they effect corresponding chakras. If you considering color therapy for psychological reasons, you may be asked to take the “Lücher Color Test.”
The diagnosis and method of treatment will determine the number of therapy sessions required.
Some forms of color therapy are simple and safe enough to be done at home, and the therapist may recommend that you try one or more of them. These include wearing clothes of a recommended color, eating certain colorful foods, visualizing a particular color while meditating, and sitting in front of a color-filtered light for a period of time. If you suffer from SAD, the practitioner will probably recommend that you purchase a bright-light box or special light visor for regular use at home.
Although contemplating different colors, or being bathed in colored lights, may be quite relaxing, there have been few clinical studies of color therapy to either support or condemn its use.
When treating serious illnesses, such as AIDS, asthma, diabetes, or even cancer, practitioners of color therapy suggest using their treatment only as an adjunct to conventional medical treatment. It should never replace specific medications or procedures prescribed by your doctor.
Physicians familiar with full-spectrum light boxes have found it very effective in the treatment of SAD. Some studies have also shown that light boxes are helpful for stress-related ailments, mood disorders, and sleep problems. See also the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library entry on Light Therapy.
How To Choose a Practitioner
Color therapists are not licensed or accredited by any state or any professional organization. The originators of each method have established their own training programs with wide variations in content and standards. It is best to choose a practitioner with recognized qualifications in a related field, who is using color only as an adjunct to a conventional treatment. An M.D., psychologist, or qualified counselor might fit this category.
If you are interested in light therapy for SAD, it is usually administered (or recommended for home use) by a physician or psychologist. Look for a clinician with experience in this area.
Never use color therapy instead of conventional care for serious ailments.
If you suffer from epilepsy, use caution when looking at flashing lights.
If you are receiving colored light therapy, avoid looking directly into the light source. Look at an object illuminated by the colored lights instead.
If you are taking prescription drugs, read the warning label to make sure that no side effects are induced if your skin is exposed to bright light.
David Edelberg, MD