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Light Therapy for Depression and SAD: Fact or Fiction?

Light therapy is sometimes used to treat depression. Research studies suggest that light therapy affects brain chemicals associated with sleep and mood, relieving symptoms of depression and SAD. Read on to learn when doctors prescribe light therapy for depression and how it works.

How light therapy works

Light therapy involves sitting near a special lamp or light box that gives off fluorescent light of high intensity (up to 10,000 lux) and mimics sunlight. It is 20 times brighter than most indoor light sources. This light helps your brain reduce the release of melatonin (the hormone that triggers sleep) a+nd increase serotonin (the hormone that affects mood). You may have to sit near the light for about half an hour each day.  

Light therapy for depression

Your doctor might suggest light therapy for depression in the following scenarios:

  • You want a therapy that is safe with few side effects.
  • You want increased effectiveness from other therapies such as psychotherapy or antidepressants.
  • You want to avoid antidepressant medication while you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any medication you are taking and before starting or stopping antidepressants.
  • You and your doctor want to reduce your dose of antidepressant medication. Never adjust your medication without first speaking to your doctor.

During the light therapy sessions, you can work or sit near a lamp or light box. The light should enter the pupils indirectly. Don't look directly at the light, as it can damage your eyes. Light therapy needs consistency and time. To get results, you must stick to the schedule of light therapy and don't do it in excess. 

Light therapy may not cure depression, SAD, or other medical conditions. However, it may help relieve symptoms, increase energy levels, and make you feel better about life and yourself. 

You may see improvement in your symptoms within a few days after starting light therapy. It can take more than two weeks for some. 

Not everyone will benefit from light therapy, but you can take certain steps to boost its chances of success. 

  • Choose the correct light box. Before purchasing a light box, do some research and consult your doctor. Make sure that the light box is safe, the right brightness, and uses the right type of light.
  • Be consistent. Make sure to have sessions of light therapy every day to see improvement in your symptoms over time. 
  • Include other types of treatment. If your symptoms of depression don't get better with light therapy, you may require additional treatment. You should talk to your physician about other types of treatments such as psychotherapy and antidepressants. 

Light therapy produces the most effects when there is a proper combination of timing, duration, and light intensity. 

Intensity: Lux refers to the intensity of light and measures the total quantity of light you get. To treat SAD, the usual recommendation is to sit with a 10,000-lux lamp or light box about 16 to 24 inches from your face.  

Duration: When you are using a 10,000-lux light box, the sessions should be about 20 to 30 minutes long. Follow the instructions of your physician. They may suggest beginning with shorter sessions and increasing your time gradually. 

Timing: For most people, light therapy works best early in the morning right after you wake up. Your physician will help you determine the schedule of light therapy that may be most successful for you. 

If you stop light therapy in the winter or early spring when your symptoms are improving, your symptoms may return. Take note of when you begin light therapy during the fall and when you stop it in spring. This can help you keep track of when to begin and end light therapy next year. 

Other reasons to choose light therapy

Light therapy can also help treat:

Light therapy risks

Light therapy is usually safe. If adverse effects occur, they are generally mild and don't last long. Some of these side effects are:

  • Eye strain
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Agitation or irritability
  • Euphoria, mania, agitation, or hyperactivity linked to bipolar disorder
  • Blurred vision
  • Tiredness
  • Problems with sleep (in this case, you should not do light therapy in the evenings)

If side effects occur, they usually get better on their own after a few days. You can try manage them by reducing the time of treatment, moving farther away from the light box, or taking breaks during longer sessions. Talk to your doctor to get the best advice about side effects of the therapy.

When should you use caution?

  • You should always use light therapy under the supervision of a doctor. It becomes more important to consult your doctor before beginning light therapy in the following scenarios:
  • You have a medical condition that increases your skin's sensitivity to light, such as systemic lupus erythematosus.
  • You take medication that increases your skin's sensitivity to sunlight including some antibiotics, herbal supplements, or anti-inflammatories.
  • You have a condition that makes your eyes sensitive to light.

Light therapy is an effective therapy that may help improve symptoms associated with depression and SAD and increase your energy levels. During the sessions, you may have to sit near a lamp or light box every day for about half an hour. The light should enter your pupils indirectly. To get successful results from light therapy, you need consistency and time. 




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