Light Therapy

The winter months are upon us and with the change in seasons often comes a change in mood. Previously known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a change in mood in response to seasonal changes is now diagnosed as depression with a seasonal pattern. Depression is characterized by an extended period of time (two weeks or longer) of low mood, loss of interest, changes in sleep, weight or appetite changes, feelings of hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, loss of energy, and/or thoughts of death. A seasonal pattern of depression is diagnosed when depressive episodes have occurred on a seasonal basis for at least the last two years and depression has not been experienced during the off-season (usually spring/summer) for at least two years.

It is important to recognize if your symptoms follow a seasonal pattern because this may open up different treatment options, one of which is light therapy. For decades, research has supported the use of light therapy for depression with a seasonal pattern. Light therapy is thought to affect the chemicals in your brain that help control mood and sleep. Research has shown a clear connection between sleep and depression and light therapy may work on this connection.

Only certain types of light are effective, so do your homework before investing in a light therapy box. It is recommended that a light box be 10,000 lux and you typically sit 16 to 25 inches from it. It is important that you do not stare at the light, but do have your eyes open while it is on. Typically, patients use the light box for 20-30 minute daily sessions. Light therapy is usually most effective when done in the morning, shortly after waking up. Here is one example of a light box:

NatureBright Light Box

Just as any treatment, there are some side effects to be aware of. In general, light therapy is considered safe and effective. Possible side effects include headache and irritability. Light therapy may be contraindicated for people with certain skin conditions, eye conditions, and/or bipolar disorder. It is recommended that you consult a professional to determine if light therapy is appropriate for you and how best to implement this treatment option.

One of the benefits of light therapy is that how quickly it starts working. Improvement in symptoms can sometimes be seen in a few days, whereas some anti-depressant medication may take weeks to start working. There is also evidence that a combination of light therapy and anti-depressant medication may be particularly effective. Recent research has also found light therapy to be useful for depression without evidence of a seasonal pattern. It has also been demonstrated to help with certain sleep disorders and dementia.

If you would like more information about managing depressive symptoms or incorporating light therapy, please call us at 612-470-4099.