Light Therapy For Depression And Other Disorders

By Delialah Falcon. May 7th 2016

Bright light therapy, or more commonly referred to as light therapy, is becoming a popular treatment option for individuals looking to improve mood disorder symptoms. Find out more about this alternative treatment and what it can do for you.

What Is Light Therapy?

Light therapy is a treatment for patients who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), depression and other similar conditions. The treatment consists of exposing the patient to intense levels of artificial fluorescent light.

  • Fluorescent bulbs are placed in a special treatment box.
  • A screen is placed over the box to diffuse the fluorescent rays.
  • The treatment box is placed on a table in a designated area, usually near the bed, a comfortable chair or a work desk.
  • Therapy consists of the individual receiving the therapy sitting close to the box.
  • The light is turned on and the person can engage in whatever activities are desired, such as reading, writing, eating, listening to music or any other activity that can be performed.  
  • The head and body are positioned so that they are facing the light while the eyes remain open.
  • Looking at the light box directly is avoided.
  • Focus is placed on the activities being performed under the light rather than on the light itself.

How Does Light Therapy Work?

The fluorescent bulbs that are used during light therapy mimic natural outdoor sunlight. It has been long known that patients suffering from seasonal affective disorder, depression and other mood disorders often report an improvement of their condition when exposed to natural sunlight. For this reason, many physicians instruct their patients to spend as much time as possible outdoors in hopes of obtaining the mood enhancing benefits of the sunlight. Light therapy has a very similar effect on individuals as natural sunlight. The light is believed to positively affect the chemicals in the brain that are responsible for changes in mood, resulting in a decrease in depressive symptoms and mood swings.

The underlying reason why the light has such a profound effect on the brain chemicals, thus the persons overall mood is still unclear. The physiological effects of the light, however, have been well documented. Blood tests have demonstrated a significant decrease in Melatonin levels of patients receiving light therapy treatment. Many experts suspect that an imbalance of Melatonin, the hormone responsible for our internal wake/sleep cycles, is the underlying cause for fluctuations in mood levels of individuals suffering from SAD and other mood disorders.

  • The duration of light therapy treatments will start out relatively low at first, on average 15 minutes per session.
  • As time goes on, the doctor will increase the amount of time the patient spends near the light box, with the maximum time topping at around the two hour mark.
  • The length of time prescribed will vary among individuals depending on their specific needs.
  • Light therapy should be avoided during evening hours when it can interfere with sleep.
  • Most individuals find that they achieve maximum results when they undergo light therapy treatment in the early morning hours.

Who Can Benefit From Light Therapy?

The most common use of light therapy is in the treatment of individuals suffering from seasonal affective disorder and those suffering from seasonal depression (winter blues).  People suffering from winter depression, believed to be a result of less hours of sunlight during the day, have a high success rate with light therapy. Research is being conducted on the effects of light therapy on other types of depression and mood disorders, as well as sleep disorders and jet lag. Individuals who begin working the night shift often have a difficult time adjusting to the reversal of the wake/sleep cycles. Recent studies show that light therapy may be an effective treatment for this condition.

Although light therapy is not generally recommended for children, there are some studies that show light therapy may help decrease the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in adults. Promising results are also reported for conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Parkinson’s disease and dementia. More research needs to be conducted in these areas.

Doctors sometimes prescribe light therapy for patients suffering from psoriasis and other skin disorders. The treatment for these individuals is very similar to those suffering from mood disorders, with the exception of the type of light bulbs used. Light therapy boxes used to treat skin conditions contain ultraviolet light bulbs. Ultraviolet light is not used in mood disorder treatment because it is hazardous to the eyes and skin.

Are There Side Effects?

The majority of individuals undergoing light therapy do not experience any side effects. Of those that do, the majority of them are minor side effects that go away rather quickly. Mild side effects can be usually be managed by simply decreasing the amount of time spent near the light box, increasing the distance between the individual and the light box or adjusting the level of light emitted. Mild side effects that have been reported with light therapy include headache, sore eyes, irritability, nausea, dry mouth, restlessness, hyperactivity and sleep problems.

Is It Safe For Everyone?

There are some individuals who should not use light therapy. Although no contraindications have been reported with light therapy use during pregnancy, expectant and nursing mothers should avoid treatments until further studies are conducted. Individuals who suffer from light sensitivity should avoid light therapy, as should those who have conditions that make skin sensitive to sunlight, such as Lupus. Certain medications can increase sensitivity to sunlight, so individuals should disclose any medications they are taking to their doctor prior to starting light therapy.

People suffering from bipolar disorder and severe depression should avid light therapy, as suicidal thoughts and manic behavior has been reported. As with any treatment, always consult your physician before starting light therapy.


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