Treating Depression with Light Therapy

Research reveals bright light treatment is more than just a way to beat the winter blues.

Depression is a disease that touches many lives. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 6.4 percent of Americans suffer from some type of depression. It’s the leading cause of disability in the United States. Antidepressant medications are widely prescribed to help patients deal with the symptoms of depression. Unfortunately, they’re effective in only 55-60 percent of cases, leaving many depression sufferers searching for a viable alternative.

Light therapy has long been used to combat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that’s linked to the changing of the seasons. But what about depression that has nothing to do with the seasons? According to Dr. Barbara Parry, MD, a professor of psychiatry at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, exposure to bright light is an effective treatment for other types of depressive disorders too.

“Light therapy initially was used to treat seasonal affective disorder (or winter depression), but more recently has been found to be even more efficacious than antidepressants for non-seasonal depression,” says Parry.

New Evidence in Favor of Light Therapy

Recent research confirms the efficacy of treating non-seasonal depression with bright light. Scientists from the University of British Columbia (UBC) studied the effects of light therapy on the disease, both as a standalone treatment and in combination with the antidepressant fluoxetine. The study, led by UBC professor and psychiatrist Dr. Raymond Lam, MD, involved 122 patients who were exposed to a fluorescent light box for 30 minutes upon waking every day for eight weeks.

The results of the study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, showed that many patients benefited from light therapy and experienced positive effects on their mood. Light therapy helped both the patients taking fluoxetine and those who took none.

Another recent study examined the effects of light therapy on depressed cancer survivors. Patients who were exposed to a bright white light box 30 minutes each morning for four weeks experienced an improvement in their depressive symptoms. Other patients who followed the same routine with a dim red light box reported no change in symptoms.

The results of these studies should provide hope to people suffering from depression who find no relief from the current crop of treatments. “More and more people are seeking help because there is less stigma about having depression,” Lam said in a news release from UBC. “It’s important to find new treatments because our current therapies don’t work for everyone. Our findings should help to improve the lives of people with depression.”

The Advantages of Light Therapy

Light therapy for non-seasonal depressive disorder isn’t necessarily faster-acting than antidepressants. According to Parry, patients using light therapy for SAD tend to see results quickly, in as little as three to four days. However, for those suffering from non-seasonal depression, the effects of light exposure take longer to kick in – about five to six weeks.

That’s approximately the same amount of time it takes to experience relief with antidepressant medications (four to six weeks). However, the positive effects of antidepressants come at a cost. Users report a variety of side effects, including insomnia, lethargy, migraines, weight gain, decreased sex drive, and even suicide.

Light therapy generally results in fewer side effects, making it an excellent alternative for people who wish to avoid the unpleasant and possibly harmful effects of antidepressants. “It is a viable alternative treatment for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding who are concerned about the small, but potentially adverse, effects of antidepressant medication on their child,” says Parry.

Those who avoid medication due to cost or lack of availability are also good candidates for light therapy. The initial investment in a fluorescent light box ranges from $40 to $300. The treatment itself is as simple as plugging in the box at home and basking in its glow for 30 minutes each morning. There’s no need to disrupt the morning routine either – reading, eating, drinking coffee, checking email, shaving, and putting on makeup are all acceptable activities during a light therapy session.

Combining Treatments for Maximum Effect

 While light therapy alone is an effective treatment for depression, its impact improves when combined with other treatments, such as psychotherapy, medication, or sleep therapy. The UBC researchers found that the patients who reported the most improvement in depressive symptoms were those who also took an antidepressant. Parry is currently researching the impact of combining light therapy with shifts in sleeping schedules. According to her, “Light treatment can work faster and its effects can be enhanced by combining it with sleep therapy.”

 

Article sources:

Barbara Parry, MD, professor of psychiatry at University of California San Diego School of Medicine

Lam, Raymond W., MD. JAMA Psychiatry. 2016; 73(1): pp 56-63.

National Institute of Mental Health: “Antidepressants: A Complicated Picture”

News release, Mount Sinai Hospital/Mount Sinai School of Medicine

News release, University of British Columbia