Light Therapy Can Help Treat Seasonal Depression—Here's What to Know Before You Try It at Home

Science suggests that light can really be an antidote to darkness.

Seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD, is a seasonal depression or winter depression that affects about 5 percent of the adult population in the United States, according to the American Psychiatric Association. A subset of those who struggle with SAD actually experience it in the summer or spring, which may seem counterintuitive, but it's absolutely possible. "SAD is more than just 'winter blues,'" the APA notes. "The symptoms can be distressing and overwhelming and can interfere with daily functioning."

Seasonal affective disorder can be treated with light therapy, however, which can be done right in the comfort of your own home. So here's what you need to know about light therapy and if it's right for you.

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What Is Light Therapy, and What Can It Help Treat?

Simply put, light therapy involves using types of artificial light that mimic natural light to help treat mental health conditions and certain other conditions. Exposing you to this near-natural light, "light therapy is thought to affect brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, easing SAD symptoms," according to Mayo Clinic.

Vinay Saranga, M.D., psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry, says light therapy is most commonly used for people who suffer from seasonal depression. "There are some other uses for light therapy, such as in some sleep disorders, people who work overnight shifts, to recover from jet lag, and in dementia as well," he adds.

Psychiatrist Nigel Lester, M.D. says there are two types of light therapy: whole spectrum light therapy and Red LED light therapy. "Whole spectrum light has been used to relieve seasonal depression and increasingly is being used to help non-seasonal depression," he says. "Red LED light has many benefits from relieving aches and pains and improving skin health, circulation, and collagen production."

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How to Choose a Light Therapy Box

Getting started with light therapy is rather straightforward. You don't need a prescription to purchase a light therapy box, as Dr. Saranga says, and they're readily available in stores and online. "However, [while] they're easily accessible, I would recommend you speak with your doctor first," he notes.

When looking around for the right light therapy product, look for a lightbox that emits "as little UV light as possible, because these are the harmful rays we associate with the sun, and the same is true when it comes to lightboxes," says Dr. Saranga. "More specifically, try to find a box that provides an exposure to 10,000 lux of light. This is the standard recommendation for seasonal depression."

If having an in-home light box doesn't suit your needs, Dr. Lester says there are certain spas you can visit that offer forms of light therapy.

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How Long Until You Feel the Effects of Light Therapy?

"When you get started with light box therapy, I recommend doing a 20-to-30-minute daily session usually in the morning hours," Dr. Saranga says. "For best results, be consistent and don't skip sessions." One study even found that just a mere hour of light therapy could significantly improve people's moods.

Though each person's response to light box therapy varies, Dr. Saranga explains, some people begin to feel better in a few days. Still, if you don't react immediately, don't give up. "The rate at which someone responds to light box therapy might also depend if the patient is doing anything else to treat their seasonal depression, like medication or psychotherapy," he says. "Either way, most patients will start to have more energy, feel more optimistic, and notice their mood slowly begin to lift."

You can also take steps to prevent your SAD symptoms proactively. If you typically suffer from seasonal depression you can get ahead of it with light therapy. "If you know you experience seasonal depression each year, don't wait for your symptoms to kick in," Dr. Saranga says. "Be proactive and start light box therapy right before the days start to get shorter in the fall."

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Should You Talk to Your Doctor First?

According to Dr. Lester, light therapy is generally safe; however, there can be side effects, including eye strain, headache, or irritability. These typically dissipate within a few days, though. "You should be cautious if you have skin sensitivity, and if you have any concern—it's always a good idea to talk to a doctor before using any health promotion service," he notes.

Dr. Saranga reiterates, too, that it's always a good idea to keep your medical professional informed on any treatment variations. "Definitely consult with your doctor before beginning light box therapy because certain conditions can become exacerbated by it," he says. "For example, if you also have bipolar disorder, light box therapy can put you into a manic episode. Also, if you have any conditions of the skin or eyes that are irritated by light, definitely speak to your doctor first."

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  1. Perera S, Eisen R, Bhatt M, et al. Light therapy for non-seasonal depression: systematic review and meta-analysis. BJPsych Open. 2016;2(2):116-126. doi:10.1192/bjpo.bp.115.001610

  2. Hamblin MR. Mechanisms and applications of the anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation. AIMS Biophys. 2017;4(3):337-361. doi:10.3934/biophy.2017.3.337

  3. Reeves GM, Nijjar GV, Langenberg P, et al. Improvement in depression scores after 1 hour of light therapy treatment in patients with seasonal affective disorder. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2012; 200(1):51-55. doi:10.1097/NMD.0b013e31823e56ca

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