Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder and Depression

Light therapy can alleviate symptoms of seasonal affective disorder and depression.

Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder and Depression

By Victoria Candland Published at December 8, 2017 Views 2,646

Cooped up inside with limited sun and cold weather dragging on, many people experience seasonal affective disorder, aptly known as SAD, in which they have depressed feelings and moods throughout the fall and winter months. SAD can be as debilitating as major depressive disorder, or non-seasonal depression, and can hinder one’s productivity and wellbeing.

There are many treatments for SAD and depression, and one of the less expensive techniques for battling symptoms is artificial light therapy. This light therapy incorporates the use of a light box that emits bright light mimicking outside light that a person absorbs at a certain time every day. This light can often help increase energy levels, alleviate SAD and depression symptoms, boost the effectiveness of antidepressant medication, and help people feel better about themselves.

The effects of light therapy can surface in a few days, but it may take two to three weeks for the treatment to be completely effective. Light therapy can also be used for other conditions like dementia and sleep disorders, among others.

How Light Therapy Works

The theory of light therapy is that it activates the brain’s circadian pacemaker, or the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) located in the hypothalamus, which is the hormone center of the brain. The circadian rhythm is the body’s biological clock and controls sleep and waking behaviors. In those with SAD or depression, the circadian system is disturbed, causing sleep disruption or too-long sleep duration.

When light enters the eye, it activates the SCN and reduces the amount of a sleep hormone called melatonin in the pineal gland. This light exposure allows the person to feel awake and energized throughout the day and allows the body to increase its melatonin levels at night, giving the person a better night’s sleep.

Some prominent scientists also believe that light therapy targets neurotransmitters linked to depression that regulate serotonin and dopamine.

Treats SAD and Depression

Light therapy is most associated with treating SAD, but it might also be very helpful in treating non-seasonal depression. One study found that light therapy may improve mood as much as any antidepressant medication. Other research has shown that light therapy is particularly efficient for those who tend to overeat or oversleep as a result of depression.

Creating a Schedule

The key to light therapy is consistency. The treatment is best done every day in the morning hours when the person just wakes up. The person puts the light therapy box, emitting bright light, in a convenient place where the light can be indirectly absorbed by the eyes. For example, a patient can put it on his coffee table as he works on the computer, watches TV, or eats.

In the beginning, light therapy can be administered in smaller doses of 15 minutes each day. The person can gradually work up to longer periods of time, ranging from 30 minutes to two hours daily, depending on the box’s light intensity. Light therapy boxes are offered from 2,500 lux to 10,000 lux and can be found in drugstores and online retailers. A 2,500 lux light box is used for two hours, while a 10,000 lux model can be used for 30 minutes. Patients should consult with their mental health provider or primary physician about the safest and most effective light therapy box to use for treatment. Once a box is found and a schedule is created with the help of a healthcare professional, the person must stick to the schedule for the best results.

Light therapy shouldn’t be stopped when symptoms are improving. Light therapy should be continued for people with SAD until the spring months when there is sufficient outside light. For those with depression, it should be continued indefinitely under the surveillance of a healthcare professional. It is important not to overdo light therapy exposure—two hours daily is the suggested limit.

Side Effects

Light therapy boxes filter out UV rays, and tanning beds are not to be used as a substitute for light therapy. The UV light emitted by a tanning bed is unhealthy and is not proven to help elevate mood.

One of the most appealing aspects of light therapy is that the treatment comes with limited side effects. The side effects that do occur typically disappear after a few days of treatment. Side effects include eyestrain, headache, nausea, and irritability, but these can be eliminated by putting the box farther away or reducing treatment time.

Light therapy shouldn’t necessarily be used in place of medication, but it can augment the effectiveness of the medication and reset the user’s sleep cycle, allowing him more energetic, happier days and restful nights.

To learn more about fighting the winter blues and depression:

Understanding the "Winter Blues"
Sustain Your Energy, Stave Off Fatigue
The Power of Pets to Help Your Depression

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