Lois Maharg sits next to a light box, reading a book

Depression Responds to Bright Light Therapy

April 2018
By Lois Maharg

If you live with depression, chances are you’re taking an antidepressant and/or undergoing some type of psychotherapy. Pills and talk have been the mainstays of depression treatment for four decades: neither is always effective but both are backed by studies that allow them to qualify as research based.

A review of 10 randomized clinical trials, published in Primary Care Companion: CNS Disorders, suggests that a 30-minute exposure to bright light in the morning combined with an antidepressant may be more effective for major depressive disorder (MDD) and bipolar depression (BD) than antidepressants alone.

Why Bright Light?
Bright light is the front-line treatment for people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), who suffer temporary depression due to reduced light exposure in colder seasons. Every day sunlight resets the body clock. Without sufficient exposure to sunlight, circadian rhythms may go out of sync, triggering depression. A daily, 30-minute session with a light box upon awakening is often all it takes to reverse the effects of SAD.

MDD and BD are not the same as SAD, yet all three appear to involve disrupted circadian rhythms. Like SAD, MDD and BD may respond to a treatment that restores regular circadian rhythms. Light also regulates neurotransmitter function (as do antidepressants) and may therefore be a promising way to elevate mood.

Light Box Tips
You may be tempted to rush out and purchase a light box—but consult your doctor first. Used under certain conditions (macular degeneration and bipolar disorder, for example) bright light can be harmful. If your doctor thinks use of a light box is a good idea, choose one with these things in mind:

  • It generates light at 10,000 lux (similar in intensity to sunlight) and not less than 5,000 lux.
  • It is large rather than small.
  • It can be positioned above the eyes about 1.5 to 2 feet away from the face.

Never look directly at the light.

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