Light Therapy

Brief exposures to bright light can be an effective treatment for depression, and particularly for seasonal affective disorder.


Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects millions of people during the fall and winter months. Winter blues or subsyndromal SAD is the milder form of this disorder.

Light changes affect people more or less causing differences in their mood, energy and behavior. Some of them are sensitive during the whole year, even in the summer. They usually spend a lot of time indoors with inadequate lighting.

Light therapy or phototherapy is one of the options used in treating seasonal affective disorder. It is believed that morning bright light treatment during the fall and winter may help people with seasonal affective disorder by balancing the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin and the hormone melatonin.

Light therapy helps to regulate the body’s internal clock (sleep-wake cycles) in the same way that sunlight does. Besides SAD, light therapy is being used to treat depression other then SAD, insomnia, jet lag and late-shift drowsiness. It is also known that women suffering from premenstrual syndrome (PMS) can have a great benefit from bright light therapy.

Light treatment for seasonal affective disorder should start in the early fall until spring. It is the most effective after waking up in the morning for about 15 to 30 minutes or more. Person receiving the treatment should seat 19 to 25 inches away from the light box without looking directly into the light. He or she can eat, write or read something.

Light therapy should be done properly in order to be safe and effective. Fluorescent light is the safest to use. It is also very important to consult your doctor when using light therapy and adjust the dose as needed.

Benefits and Challenges

Light therapy is:

  • readily available,
  • not expensive, and
  • can be used in various settings.

Possible side effects are rare but may include dryness of skin and eyes, headache and nausea.

Contraindications to light therapy are:

  • tendency toward mania,
  • porphyria,
  • photosensitive skin condition,
  • taking a photosensitizing medication or herb.


Some of the studies confirming efficiency of the light therapy:

1. Beginning to See the Light
Archives of General Psychiatry, Oct 1998
Anna Wirz-Justice
"But light is as effective as drugs, perhaps more so. Three articles in this issue provide the best evidence to date that light is an effective antidepressant in seasonal affective disorder (SAD)." [...]
2. Morning vs Evening Light Treatment of Patients with Winter Depression
Archives of General Psychiatry, Oct 1998
Alfred J. Lewy and others
"We recommend that bright-light exposure be scheduled immediately on awakening in the treatment of most patients with seasonal affective disorder." [...]

Recommended Products

There are different kinds of light therapy (phototherapy) products such as:

  • Light box is very common and popular product that can be placed on a table or desk. It contains several tubes that produce light.
  • Desk lamp looks like any home/office lamp.
  • Light visor is worn on our head and we can move around during the treatment.
  • Dawn simulators allow you to wake up naturally by simulating sunrise. There is also an option before you go to sleep at night by simulating sunset.


Light therapy is an effective treatment for seasonal affective disorder and it may reduce the symptoms of non-seasonal depression.

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