Light therapy is a proven treatment for seasonal depression — and it might help with other forms of depression, too.
Light therapy — aka bright light therapy or phototherapy — is a type of therapy where you’re exposed to artificial light. It’s typically used for people with seasonal depression, sometimes known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
This type of depression usually occurs when there’s less natural light during the fall and winter months.
“Natural sunlight ranks best when it comes to emotional well-being. However, certain times of the year bring about shorter days and longer nights,” says Michele Leno, PhD, LP, a licensed psychologist and founder of DML Psychological Services, PLLC, in Detroit, Michigan.
“So light therapy is the next best thing for some,” Leno says. “While it may not cure depression or eliminate the need for therapy, a light therapy lamp can improve mood and energy.”
In a light therapy session, you sit by a light therapy box, which emits bright light similar to natural sunlight. Using the right frequencies and exposures can increase serotonin and norepinephrine levels, the chemicals in your brain that play a role in mood regulation.
People might use light therapy for various reasons, including to:
- relieve symptoms of seasonal affective disorder
- try a natural depression treatment
- boost the effectiveness of psychotherapy or antidepressants
- use in combination with a lower dose of antidepressant medication
- use as an alternative to antidepressants if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding
Light therapy can be used to treat:
- seasonal depression
- other types of depression
- bipolar disorder depression, though it may not be ideal for people who experience manic episodes
- major neurocognitive disorder (aka dementia)
- sleep disorders
- adapting to a work schedule that’s during night hours
Other forms of light therapy can help treat certain skin conditions.
Studies have suggested that bright light therapy might work by affecting your circadian rhythm (your body’s natural 24-hour cycle) and serotonin uptake in the brain.
Light therapy is typically used in combination with other types of treatment and healing techniques.
“Sun lamps have been proven to improve SAD symptoms, though we often recommend them as adjunct therapy with keeping active, seeking talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, and medication,” says Dr. Sean Zager, a board certified family physician with Paloma Health.
Light boxes are for home use.
“Some people do even better by preemptively using the light in the fall,” Zager says.
“You want to find one that specifies it is UV-free, as that can hurt your skin,” Zager adds. “Do not use a lamp that is made to treat skin disorders, as those will not work for SAD. You should look for a lamp that covers your whole face and neck surface area during the session (so at least 12 to 15 inches).”
Some lamps are static and others have a tilt. Which one you choose is up to you, depending on how you plan to use it. You can also try light therapy visors, which means you can walk around while receiving extra light.
When it comes to light therapy, more is not necessarily better. Leno explains: “Since relaxation is the point, it’s important to find a lamp that is bright enough, but not too bright. Excessive light may stimulate your central nervous system and cause an undesirable effect.”
Light therapy is the first-line treatment for improving symptoms of depression related to seasonal patterns.
“Light therapy may be used alone or combined with other therapies to ease symptoms of major depressive disorder or dysthymia,” says Leno. “A therapy lamp may be less optimal for treating bipolar disorder, especially for someone prone to manic episodes.”
Not only does this type of therapy help stabilize mood, but it can also increase energy. Fatigue and a lack of motivation are common symptoms of depression, and light therapy may help with these symptoms in some people.
Some people may have side effects from sun lamps, such as eyestrain, headaches, or nausea.
Extreme light exposure can trigger migraine or other neurologic and psychiatric conditions, Zager says.
Light therapy may not be appropriate for some people with light-sensitive skin or eyes, or health conditions that make them sensitive to light, like lupus. Certain medications, like antibiotics, some anti-inflammatories, and some skin medications, can make you sensitive to light, too.
If you have glaucoma, retinopathy, or cataracts, experts
It’s important to check with your doctor before beginning light therapy.
As an accessible and noninvasive form of treatment, there are many possible advantages to trying light therapy for depression. Research has shown its effectiveness, and many people can attest to the benefits.
Before trying light therapy, experts recommend that you consult a medical professional to see if it’s a good fit for you.