Bright light therapy is a treatment that’s become increasingly common for treating seasonal affective disorder, a condition that impacts many during the winter months. We sat down with our in-house research specialist to discuss light therapy – what it is, how it works and if it can help treat other types of depression in addition to seasonal affective disorder.
What is light therapy?
Light therapy, sometimes called blue light therapy or light box therapy, involves sitting or working, for a prescribed amount of time, near a device that gives off light that mimics daylight. It’s thought to ease symptoms of depression by impacting brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep.
Light therapy effectiveness: What the research says
While additional studies are needed to fully understand the role of light therapy, so far results from clinical trials investigating the effectiveness of this treatment on people with major depressive disorder (MDD) have been generally positive.
- One study, involving 50 inpatients with severe MDD, found that when researchers combined the antidepressant venlafaxine with light therapy, recipients experienced “significantly lower HDRS depression scores” than those only taking the antidepressant. The HDRS (Hamilton Depression Rating Scale) is a questionnaire that helps provide an indication of depression severity.
- Another 8-week trial involving 122 participants living with non-seasonal MDD found that light therapy, both on its own and in combination with the SSRI fluoxetine, was effective and well tolerated in those who participated.
- Another study found mixed results, highlighting the need for more research to fully understand the role of light therapy
It’s important to note that while these studies showed positive efficacy, researchers still don’t know what “dose” or duration of light therapy is best and for what variations of depression.
Results: What you can expect
Light therapy is unlikely to cure major depression, but it may ease symptoms, especially those related to the season, and might help you feel better. Here’s what some PatientsLikeMe members have said about using light therapy as a treatment:
Check out side effects, dosages and costs members have reported for this treatment.
Choosing a light box
Although you don’t need a prescription to buy a light therapy box, it’s best to ask your doctor or medical health provider if light therapy is a good option for you. Before beginning treatment, you should discuss whether you need to take any special precautions, and what type of light therapy box would best meet your needs so you get the most benefit and minimize side effects. You should also discuss how to introduce light therapy into your treatment regimen. Also, know that health insurance companies rarely cover the cost of this treatment.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a light box should:
- Provide an exposure to 10,000 lux of light
- Emit as little UV light as possible
Recommendations for using the light box typically include:
- Use the light box within the first hour of waking up in the morning
- 20-30 minutes is generally the recommended amount of time
- Use at a distance of about 16-24 inches from the face
- Eyes should be open, but not looking directly at the light
Things to consider:
- Is it made specifically to treat seasonal affective disorder? Some lights are designed to treat skin disorders, make sure you’re selecting the right one for your needs!
- How much UV light does it release? UV light can damage your eyes if used incorrectly. Light boxes used to treat SAD should filter out most or all UV light.
- Is it the style you need? Light boxes come in all shapes and sizes – the effectiveness of light therapy depends on daily use so choose a product that’s convenient for you.
Light boxes are designed to be safe and effective, but they’re not approved or regulated by the FDA so speak with your healthcare provider to understand your options. Read more about things to consider before choosing a product here. Do you use a light box? Share your experience and advice in the comments for choosing a product.
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