Light therapy is a way to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and certain other conditions by exposure to artificial light. SAD is a type of depression that occurs at a certain time each year, usually in the fall or winter.
During light therapy, you sit or work near a device called a light therapy box. The box gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light.
Light therapy is thought to affect brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, easing SAD symptoms. Using a light therapy box may also help with other types of depression, sleep disorders and other conditions. Light therapy is also known as bright light therapy or phototherapy.
You may want to try light therapy for a number of reasons:
Light therapy is used as a treatment for several conditions, including:
Light therapy used to treat skin conditions such as psoriasis is different from the type of light therapy used for the conditions listed above. Light therapy for skin disorders uses a lamp that emits ultraviolet (UV) light. This type of light should be filtered out in light therapy boxes used for SAD and other conditions because it can damage your eyes and skin.
Light therapy is generally safe. If side effects occur, they're usually mild and short lasting. They may include:
When side effects do occur, they may go away on their own within a few days of starting light therapy. You also may be able to manage side effects by reducing treatment time, moving farther from your light box, taking breaks during long sessions or changing the time of day you use light therapy. Talk to your doctor for advice if side effects are a problem.
It's best to be under the care of a health professional while using light box therapy. It's always a good idea to talk to a doctor before starting light therapy, but it's especially important if:
Light therapy boxes should be designed to filter out harmful ultraviolet (UV) light, but some may not filter it all out. UV light can cause skin and eye damage. Look for a light therapy box that emits as little UV light as possible. If you have concerns about light therapy and your skin, talk to your dermatologist.
Some people claim that tanning beds help ease seasonal affective disorder symptoms. But this hasn't been proved to work. The UV light released by tanning beds can damage your skin and greatly increase your risk of skin cancer.
Light therapy may trigger mania in some people with bipolar disorder, so get advice from your doctor before starting light therapy. If you have any concerns about how light therapy may be affecting your mood or thoughts, seek help right away.
Although you don't need a prescription to buy a light therapy box, it's best to ask your doctor or mental health provider if light therapy is a good option for you. Ask whether you need to take any special precautions. Also discuss which type of light therapy box would best meet your needs, so you get the most benefit and minimize possible side effects.
Internet retailers, drugstores and other stores offer a variety of light therapy boxes. Familiarize yourself with the variety of features and options available on light boxes to help ensure that you buy a high-quality product that's safe and effective. Health insurance companies rarely cover the cost.
Generally, most people with seasonal affective disorder begin treatment with light therapy in the early fall, when it typically becomes cloudy in many regions of the country. Treatment usually continues until spring, when outdoor light alone is sufficient to sustain a good mood and higher levels of energy.
If you typically have fall and winter depression, you may notice symptoms during prolonged periods of cloudy or rainy weather during other seasons. You and your doctor can adjust your light treatment based on the timing and duration of your symptoms.
If you want to try light therapy for nonseasonal depression or another condition, talk to your doctor about how light therapy can be most effective.
During light therapy sessions, you sit or work near a light box. To be effective, light from the light box must enter your eyes indirectly. You can't get the same effect merely by exposing your skin to the light.
While your eyes must be open, don't look directly at the light box, because the bright light can damage your eyes. Be sure to follow your doctor's recommendations and the manufacturer's directions.
Light therapy requires time and consistency. You can set your light box on a table or desk in your home or office. That way you can read, use a computer, write, watch TV, talk on the phone or eat while having light therapy. Stick to your therapy schedule and don't overdo it.
Light therapy is most effective when you have the proper combination of light intensity, duration and timing.
Light therapy probably won't cure seasonal affective disorder, nonseasonal depression or other conditions. But it may ease symptoms, increase your energy levels, and help you feel better about yourself and life.
Light therapy can start to improve symptoms within just a few days. In some cases, though, it can take two or more weeks.
Light therapy isn't effective for everyone. But you can take steps to get the most out of your light therapy and help make it a success.