Does Light Therapy for Depression Actually Work?

Does Light Therapy for Depression Actually Work?

Is light therapy for depression an effective treatment? Light therapy has been proven to be a treatment option for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), one type of depression. But how does light therapy work for SAD, and can light therapy for depression that is not seasonal be effective also?

What Is Light Therapy?

Although the name might make you think so, light therapy is not as simple as just turning on all the lights inside your home or office.

What light therapy actually refers to is being exposed to a specific kind of bright light (that mimics natural outdoor light) for 20 to 30 minutes each day. For SAD, the typical recommendation is to use a 10,000-lux light box at a distance of about 16 to 24 inches from your face.  It’s recommended that you don’t look directly into the light, but that you keep your eyes open. Many people use the time to read, work, or drink their morning coffee. Light therapy is most effective within the first two hours of waking.

Most people with SAD begin treatment with light therapy in the early fall, when it typically becomes darker in many regions of the country. Treatment usually continues until spring, when outdoor light alone is sufficient.

Light therapy is one of the most common methods of treating SAD because it is an effective, noninvasive procedure that doesn’t generally produce adverse side effects. If side effects occur, they’re usually mild and short lasting. They may include:

  • Eyestrain
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Irritability or agitation
  • Mania, euphoria, hyperactivity or agitation associated with bipolar disorder

When side effects do occur and persist beyond a few days, you may be able to manage side effects by reducing treatment time, moving farther from your light box, taking breaks during long sessions or changing the time of day you use light therapy. Talk to your doctor for advice if side effects are a problem.

How Does Light Therapy Help with Seasonal Depression?

People who experience seasonal affective disorder often have too much melatonin in their bodies during the winter months. Since melatonin is the hormone that regulates our sleeping and waking habits, too much melatonin can make it harder to sleep at night and make us feel groggy during the day.

Light therapy helps with the regulation of melatonin by stimulating our retinas. Our retinas are connected to the hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain responsible for regulating our melatonin. This is important for people with SAD because they often have too much melatonin in their systems, as melatonin regulation functions best with adequate amounts of both light and dark. By using light therapy daily, particularly within the first two hours of waking up, people with SAD get their natural melatonin systems off to the right start.

Light therapy can also help people with SAD by reducing the amounts of a transporter protein called SERT. Transporter proteins are responsible for helping neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals that help your brain function and interact with different parts of your body.

One type of neurotransmitter is serotonin, which is a chemical that has been linked to all types of depression. It is easier to have stable moods and a sense of well-being when you have the correct levels of serotonin.

Serotonin moves through your body with the help of a transmitter protein called SERT. SERT is responsible for returning serotonin to dormant nerve cells. Therefore, when there is more SERT in your body, that means that less serotonin is traveling through your body.

Studies have found that people with SAD tend to have higher levels of SERT during the winter months than they do during summer and higher levels of SERT than most people do on the whole. For people who have SAD, light therapy helps their bodies have the right amount of SERT, resulting in mood improvement.

Does Light Therapy For Depression That Isn’t Seasonal Work?

Should light therapy be considered an effective treatment option for all types of depression? This is a more difficult question to answer.  Some studies say it is a good treatment option, and some studies say there is no proven benefit. Part of the reason that opinions differ so greatly is that it is impossible to conduct a study with a placebo, given that patients will be able to literally see whether or not there is a bright light in front of them.

Since the results have been so mixed, light therapy should not at this time be definitively considered an effective option for treating depression that is not seasonal.

With that said, since side effects are rare and it is easy to buy a light therapy lamp between $50-300, light therapy can be considered a component of a comprehensive treatment plan for depression. If you would like to use light therapy as a part of your treatment plan, make sure to choose a light with 10,000 lux. Make sure as well that the light is fluorescent without any ultraviolet wavelengths. This could mean that you purchase either a full spectrum light with UV rays filtered out, or a broad spectrum light that naturally does not emit UV rays.

Can TMS For Depression Work?

In summary, Light therapy probably won’t cure SAD or other types depression. But it may ease symptoms, increase your energy levels, and help you feel better about yourself and life.

Like light therapy, TMS is a noninvasive procedure used to treat depression. However, unlike light therapy, TMS is considered a much more powerfully effective treatment in reducing all symptoms of depression and is an excellent option for all types of depression. Contact us today and we’ll help you decide if TMS is right for you.

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