What Is Light Therapy for Depression?
Depression is one of the most common mood and mental health disorders people struggle with. We also happen to be in the grips of winter, and even in parts of the country where it’s not incredibly cold, there has been a record amount of rain this year. This can worsen depression, or lead to symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, also known as seasonal depression or winter depression. One natural treatment for depression some people explore is light therapy. We’ll provide information and what to know about light therapy for depression. Topics covered in this article include:
- What is light therapy for depression?
- Why is light therapy used and how does it work?
- What is seasonal affective disorder or seasonal depression?
- Is light therapy effective for non-seasonal depression?
- How do you choose the right light box therapy for depression or light therapy lamp for depression?
- What are the best type of light therapy products that are safe and effective?
What Is Light Therapy and How Does It Work?
Light therapy is a natural way to treat certain conditions. With light therapy, you’re exposed to an artificial source of light. Typically, that’s a light box, but it can also be something more like a light lamp.
A light box is also known as a light therapy box. When you’re sitting next to it, while the light is artificial, it’s replicating outdoor light.
Light therapy is believed to work by affecting the brain chemicals that regulate our mood and sleep patterns.
Along with using light therapy as a way to treat seasonal depression, which is most common, it’s also sometimes used to treat other types of depression and sleep disorders.
Other names for light therapy include:
- Bright light therapy
Specific Reasons People Try Light Therapy Include:
- A doctor or healthcare provider might recommend it to help with symptoms of conditions like seasonal affective disorder
- It is a natural treatment that’s considered safe with minimal side effects
- It may be used in conjunction with other treatments for depression like psychotherapy and medication to potentially improve the effectiveness
- Sometimes pregnant women may try light therapy, or they might use it while breastfeeding if they want to avoid taking antidepressants
- It may help someone to take a lower dose of their prescribed antidepressant
According to the Mayo Clinic, conditions that light therapy may be used for include:
- Seasonal Affective Disorder-SAD
- Non-seasonal depression
- Jet lag
- Sleep disorders
- Helping cope with shift work
Light therapy may also be used to help with the treatment of certain skin conditions. For example, people with psoriasis may use light therapy. However, it’s different from light therapy for depression and other mental health conditions. Light therapy for skin emits UV light. With light therapy boxes for SAD and other mental health conditions, the UV light has to be filtered out. Otherwise, it can damage skin or eyes.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
One of the primary uses of light therapy for depression is to help with seasonal affective disorder or SAD. SAD is a type of depression related to changes. For most people, it starts at the same time every year and also ends at the same time—at least somewhat.
Seasonal affective disorder most commonly begins to affect people in fall and as winter approaches. It then tends to dissipate as spring gets closer and the weather gets warmer.
It is possible but also rare for some people to experience SAD symptoms in the winter month, and see them get better in fall or winter.
Symptoms of SAD
Some of the symptoms of SAD include:
- Feeling depressed every day, most of the day
- Loss of interest in activities
- Low energy
- Sleep disturbances
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Feeling agitated
- Concentration problems
- Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or guilt
- Craving high-carbohydrate foods
In people who have bipolar disorder, changes in the seasons can affect them as well. For example, in spring and summer, some people may have symptoms of mania or hypomania, while fall and winter might cause symptoms of depression.
What Causes SAD?
Some of the potential causes of SAD can include:
- When it’s fall and winter, it can cause changes in circadian rhythm, which is essentially the body’s internal clock. This is because of the reduced amount of sunshine, and it’s believed to be a primary contributor to SAD.
- Reduced sunlight can cause serotonin levels to drop. Serotonin is a naturally-occurring brain neurotransmitter affecting mood.
- During the fall and winter, the seasonal shifts can cause changes in the natural levels of melatonin in the body. Melatonin is essential in regulating both sleep patterns and mood.
Other risk factors include a family history of SAD or other types of depression or having major depression or bipolar disorder. The further someone lives from the equator, the more likely they may be to experience SAD as well since there is limited sunlight during the late fall and winter months.
Untreated SAD can cause complications, many of which can be serious. These can include:
- Withdrawal from social activities, school or work
- Substance abuse
- Other mental health disorders like anxiety
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Treatment for seasonal affective disorder primarily includes light therapy.
Also, medication and psychotherapy may be used, depending on the severity and other specifics of your symptoms and condition.
Light therapy is actually the first-line treatment for SAD that begins in the fall.
Light Therapy for Non-Seasonal Depression
While light therapy is a main treatment for seasonal depression, what about non-seasonal depression? Does light therapy for work non-seasonal depression?
According to research and clinical trials cited by Thomas M. Penders, MD who serves as an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, it may be effective for non-seasonal depression, but it’s not yet widely used
There has been research showing light therapy for depression that’s not seasonal may be effective, either on its own or in combination with medication-based treatment.
Dr. Penders led research on the topic, and his research found that patients with non-seasonal depression who were treated with bright light therapy did show benefits. In his research, it was used in the morning. People with both unipolar major depressive disorder and bipolar depression were included in the study.
There were ten studies with 458 patients, and when light therapy was used, it was found to be better than antidepressant medications alone in reducing or alleviating depression symptoms.
Research has also been done on patients with different conditions such as eating disorders, cystic fibrosis, and antepartum depression, and light therapy has been found effective at helping with depression symptoms in many of these cases as well.
How Does Light Therapy for Depression and SAD Work?
Harvard University wrote on the topic of light therapy for depression fairly recently, with their article based on a review published in the American Family Physician. This research broke down some of the specific reasons light therapy for depression and SAD may be effective.
Details of how light therapy works include:
- Light therapy stimulates the cells in the retina which are attached to the part of the brain controlling circadian rhythm. This part of the brain is called the hypothalamus.
- When the hypothalamus is stimulated at the same time of day every day, it can help restore normalcy and balance to the circadian rhythm.
- Daily exposure to bright light helps regulate how much melatonin is produced, and this helps not only with depression symptoms but also sleep patterns.
- People with SAD have been shown to have higher levels of a certain protein that’s responsible for moving serotonin from neurons in the back to the brain to another part of the brain.
- Light helps produce these transporter proteins so they can more effectively move serotonin in the brain, helping reduce or alleviate depression symptoms.
Is Light Therapy for Depression Safe?
Of course, it’s natural to want to determine whether or not light therapy is safe and what risks or side effects may exist. Overall, light therapy can be a good option (under the instruction of a health care professional) because it does have minimal risks or side effects.
The mild, short-term potential side effects of light therapy can include:
- Eyestrain or pain
- Agitation or irritability
If someone uses light therapy and they have bipolar disorder, it could trigger mania or hypomania. If you have bipolar disorder, only use light therapy under the advice of your healthcare provider.
If you have a condition that makes your skin light-sensitive, speak with your health care provider.
Also be aware that some medications increase how sensitive you are to sunlight, such as St. John’s Wort and anti-inflammatories, among others. Use caution with light therapy and speak to your health care provider first.
What to Know When You Start Light Therapy
First and foremost, if you’re unsure of the light therapy box or lamp that’s right for you, consult with your health care provider.
The following are some things to know as you plan to start light therapy:
- Typically if you’re using light therapy for SAD, you will begin your treatment at the start of fall, and continue it into spring.
- With non-seasonal depression, people will typically use light therapy in the morning each day but speak with your health care provider about the best option for you.
- For light therapy to work, the light has to enter your eyes and not just touch your skin. However, don’t look directly at the light because it can cause eye damage. Keep your eyes open and consider doing something else while you do it such as reading or working.
- It takes a combination of time and being consistent for light therapy to work.
- The usual guidance is to sit in front of a light therapy box for 30 minutes a day, as soon as waking up or as close to waking up as possible.
Features of An Effective Light Therapy Box
Look for the following when you’re choosing a light therapy box:
- A light box should offer exposure to 10,000 lux of light
- As little UV light should be emitted as is possible when using light therapy for depression
- Light therapy boxes aren’t approved or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of depression or SAD, and you can buy a light box without a prescription, but it’s usually not covered by health insurance
- Choose a light therapy box that’s intended to specifically treat SAD or symptoms of depression—skin disorder lamps can cause eye damage.
- There are varying levels of brightness available depending on the light therapy box you choose—typically, the brighter the box, the shorter the amount of time you have to use it each day.
- Some light therapy boxes offer features that are designed to protect the eyes. If you have eye disorders such as glaucoma, speak with your doctor before using a light therapy box.
- Some of the biggest differences in light boxes are based on the design including the size and shape. Some are designed more like a lamp, while others are square or rectangular or different designs.
- Since you need to use it daily, convenience and design are important features.
What Is the Best Light Box Therapy Device for Depression?
What should you know if you’re going to buy a light therapy device?
If you’ve talked to your doctor and come to the conclusion that light therapy for depression could be a good treatment option for you, you have a multitude of choices.
Some of the factors that go into choosing a light therapy box are based on things like convenience and personal preference.
We put together a list of some of the top-selling light therapy boxes for depression that are available on Amazon, along with some of the features, pros, and cons of each.
Aurora Lightpad Light Therapy Box
The Aurora Lightpad Light Therapy Box has some of the best customer reviews on Amazon. This light therapy box for depression and SAD features bright, full-spectrum light therapy. The bulbs are UV-free, which is one of the best features.
The following are additional features of the Aurora Lightpad:
- Costs $179.77 with prime delivery
- Very compact size
- You can be up to 25 inches from the device to get the full 10,000 lux light intensity
- LED lights
- Adjustable stand with 13 difference angel options
- Portable and lightweight
According to users, most love this light therapy box on Amazon, but the one main complaint is that it doesn’t have a timer. However, the brightness and overall effectiveness, as well as the compact shape and size, make it a favorite.
Light Therapy Lamp
The Light Therapy Lamp features an excellent slim design and four brightness levels. Other features of this top-rated light therapy box include:
- The price is currently $49.95 on Amazon, with Prime shipping available.
- The LED bulbs have 80,000+ hour lifespan
- Modern, slim and compact design
- The four light modes include 2500 lux, 5000 lux, 7500 lux, and 10,000 lux
- You can place it at a distance of 15 to 24 inches away
- 3-year warranty included
Customers cited many positives of this light therapy box for depression including the faux-marble look that’s stylish and aesthetically appealing. It’s also UV-free.
Verilux HappyLight Touch Light Therapy Lamp
Verilux is one of the leading names when it comes to light therapy lamps and light therapy boxes for depression and SAD. They have quite a few models of light therapy boxes on Amazon, and the HappyLight is one of the most popular. Features of the Verilux HappyLight include:
- Cost is around $79.95 and Prime shipping is available
- Full spectrum light therapy
- 10,000 lux with UV rays blocked
- Customizable with high and low settings
- Includes no-glare lenses that you can install
- Small, compact size
- Broad surface area for more light per square inch
The reviews for the Verilux Happy Light are excellent, and many people report feeling a difference relatively quickly with this product. With this specific HappyLight product there are nearly 1,000 customer reviews, most of which are positive.
Circadian Optics Lampu Light Therapy Lamp
The Circadian Optics Lampu Light Therapy is a bit different from some of the other best light therapy lamps on this review because it features a modern round design. The new 2019 model is different from previous models because they upgraded the light panel for more diffused light. Features of this light therapy lamp include:
- The price is around $64.99 currently, with Prime shipping available
- 10,000 lux with three levels of varying brightness and intensity
- 50,000-hour lifespan for bulbs
- Sleek, minimalist design
- Full spectrum light
- The 5500k color temperature is similar to the color of the noon sun
- 3-year warranty for light and adapter
There are a few negative reviews about the Circadian Optics Lampu, but these seem to be primarily geared toward older models, which had a dot pattern of light and some people said it caused effects like headaches. Circadian Optics has replaced that feature for the 2019 version.
Circadian Optics Lattis Light Therapy Lamp
Another great light therapy lamp from Circadian Optics is the Lattis Light. It’s different from the other lights on this list because of the modern, lattice design. Features of this modern light therapy lamp include:
- Cost on Amazon of the Circadian Optics light is around $59.99 with Prime shipping available
- 10,000 lux with three brightness levels
- 5500K color temperature
- Full-spectrum UV-free light
- LED bulbs with a lifespan of 50,000 hours
A few things reviewers note that they like about the lamp include the stylish look and feel, and the design makes it easy to shift it and move it to the right angle.
Summing Up—Light Therapy For Depression
Research indicates light therapy for depression is effective in many cases. Using light box therapy for depression or a light therapy lamp for depression can improve symptoms with few known side effects.
Light therapy is especially effective for seasonal depression, but also seems to help with non-seasonal depression in many cases. Light therapy can boost mood, improve energy levels and help with sleep disorders also.
The Mayo Clinic. “Light Therapy.” February 8, 2017. Accessed February 24, 2019.
Mendelson, Wallace B. MD, Hatoum, Hind T. PhD., Kong, Sheldon X. PhD., and Wong, Josephine M. “Light Treatment for Nonseasonal Depression.” Psychiatric Times. March 1, 1999. Accessed February 24, 2019.
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment: Choosing a Light Therapy Box.” Mayo Clinic. March 16, 2016. Accessed February 24, 2019.
Yasgur, Batya Swift MA, LSW. “Bright Light Therapy for Nonseasonal Depression: An Emerging Intervention.” Psychiatry Advisor. March 2, 2017. Accessed February 24, 2019.
Miller, Michael Craig M.D .”Seasonal Affective Disorder: Bring on the Light.” Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. October 29, 2015. Accessed February 24, 2019.