Shorter days are already upon us, which means less daylight and less time spent outdoors. For those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that occurs typically in the fall and winter months, the shorter days are especially rough. Bright light therapy is best known as a method used to treat SAD, but is also highly effective in treating other conditions, and new research is expanding the potential for this simple healing method.
What is light therapy?
During light therapy, also known as phototherapy or heliotherapy, a patient sits near a light therapy box that gives off a bright artificial light meant to mimic natural outdoor light. Don’t worry, the amount of interior light being taken in by the eye is far less than what occurs outside, so relying on electric light doesn’t compare to the real thing. Outdoor light on a sunny day is 500 to 1,000 times brighter than office or room lighting.
The aforementioned light box is a very simple lamp that can fit on an office desk or anywhere in the home. The amount of specific light rays and length of time the light box should be used is dependent on the condition being treated as well as the individual. Treatment sessions range from 15 minutes to 3 hours, once or twice a day depending on the individual’s needs, and a person’s mood should start to improve within a week or so.
How is light therapy used to improve mental health?
Light therapy was originally developed in the 1980’s by the National Institute of Mental Health to treat SAD, and it has been a very popular treatment method. It is believed to affect brain chemicals linked to mood, resulting in a decrease in SAD symptoms. It’s significantly cheaper than psychotherapy and medications, and it’s highly effective in treating seasonal depression with few side effects. Minor side effects include headaches, eyestrain, or very rarely, an overactive state or feeling “too high.”
Additionally, it can be used to treat depressive episodes with bipolar patients, a part of the disorder that currently has very few treatment options. However, this requires careful monitoring, as too much light exposure can lead to manic episodes, and its effectiveness depends on light exposure at specific times of day.
For instance, a small study published in the journal Bipolar Disorder, examined nine bipolar women with depression who were instructed to use a light box in addition to their regular treatment, for two weeks for 15, 30, and 45 minutes a day. Four women received morning light, and five received midday light. Results showed that six women partially recovered with the light therapy, while three women achieved full recovery from depressive symptoms. Midday light exposure for 45 or 60 minutes per day provided the best results. Researchers found these results noteworthy since people with bipolar disorder can be very sensitive to morning light.