Light Therapy for Depression: Everything You Need To Know

More and more people are talking about mental health these days, and for good reason.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 21% of U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2020, and 16.5% of U.S. adolescents experienced mental illness in 2016. This formerly taboo subject is finally emerging as a normal consideration in overall health without the stigma it previously held.

Depression is one of the most common mental health issues afflicting people today. Many medical treatments exist to help people suffering from clinical depression, and more are being discovered all the time. However, some people wish to try a combination of therapies, and others want to avoid pharmaceuticals entirely.

People in both camps may find themselves wondering what medical science has to say about light therapy for depression.

Fortunately, science has plenty to say about light therapy for depression!

What Is Light Therapy?

Light therapy, also known as phototherapy or low-level laser therapy (LLLT), is a treatment that shines specific wavelengths of light on the body to achieve a certain health effect. Light therapy involves the use of light emitting diodes (LEDs) to produce wavelengths of red, blue, green or full-spectrum light in a variety of treatment devices.

Light therapy can be used to treat a whole host of medical conditions, from canker sores to sleep disorders. It is thought to affect the production of chemicals in the brain that influence mood, sleep, and mental well-being, meaning light therapy can have a beneficial effect on certain mental disorders as well.

What Is Depression?

The American Psychiatric Association defines depression as “a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act.”

Though this is an excellent general definition, depression comes in many forms that can be further identified based on their various causes and timing.

The Main Types of Depression

Below we’ll look further at a few of the different types of depression.

Major Depressive Disorder

Major depression, or major depressive disorder, is when a person feels depressed most of the time during most days. Other symptoms can include:

  • Loss of interest or enjoyment in activities.
  • Unintentional weight gain or weight loss.
  • Disturbed sleep.
  • Feelings of guilt and worthlessness.
  • Low energy.
  • Agitation, anxiety or restlessness.
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions.
  • Thoughts of suicide.

If a person experiences several of these symptoms for more than two weeks, especially a depressed mood, they could suffer from major depressive disorder.

Persistent Depressive Disorder

People with persistent depressive disorder have many of the same symptoms as those with major depressive disorder. The difference is that while symptoms of major depression exist for two weeks or more, symptoms of persistent depressive disorder go on for at least two years. Additional symptoms can include:

  • Eating too much or too little.
  • Sleeping too much or too little.
  • Low self esteem.
  • Feeling hopeless.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, occurs when someone experiences symptoms of major depression during a specific time of the year. This usually occurs during the winter months when people tend to spend more time indoors, and cloudy skies and shorter days prevent them from getting much sunlight. Seasonal affective disorder typically resolves with the arrival of warmer weather.

Bipolar Disorder

A person diagnosed with bipolar disorder has widely fluctuating moods. They experience deep depressive episodes accompanied by feelings of hopelessness, despair, and thoughts of suicide, followed by extreme “up” periods, known as manic phases. During manic phases, individuals with bipolar disorder may engage in risky behaviors and feel enormous amounts of energy.

Peripartum (Postpartum) Depression

Although the birth of a new baby is a joyous occasion, the hormones surrounding pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding can leave new mothers feeling moody, irritable and hopeless. Postpartum depression is diagnosed when a new mother experiences the symptoms of major depression without resolution after a few weeks.

Situational Depression

Situational depression, while not an official psychiatric diagnosis, refers to symptoms of depression during a season of life in which a person has trouble managing their stress. This can be in response to a traumatic event such as a divorce, natural disaster, or the loss of a loved one.

How Can Light Therapy Help To Treat Depression?

Serotonin is the main neurotransmitter responsible for mood. Light therapy is thought to aid in the treatment of depression by helping make serotonin more available in the brain.

Many studies have shown the benefits of light therapy for depression. People with all different types of depression, including major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder, have participated in studies on light therapy for depression. There are too many to cover them all, but here are a few examples.

Major or Persistent Depressive Disorder

One study showed bright light therapy to be effective and well-tolerated in adults with nonseasonal major depressive disorder. The most dramatic results occurred with the use of light therapy alone or in conjunction with the medication fluoxetine.

Another study revealed that light therapy decreased depressive symptoms and helped to regulate the circadian rhythms of cancer survivors. Symptoms of depression are common in cancer survivors, even many years after their treatments end, so this is a significant discovery.

Bipolar Disorder

Researchers at Northwestern University found that light therapy could help in the treatment of bipolar depression. One of the researchers stressed, however, that it’s important to use light therapy for bipolar depression under a physician’s care. Phototherapy at the wrong time of day could trigger episodes of mania.

A current study on light therapy for depression is examining the treatment of the depressive phase of bipolar type II patients with phototherapy during the autumn and winter months.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

The use of light therapy to treat SAD is perhaps the most studied application of light therapy for depression, so the effectiveness of bright light therapy for SAD is well established.

This type of treatment began in the 1980s and remains a primary treatment for SAD today. Ongoing research continues to support its use for this kind of depression.

Further Applications of Light Therapy for Depression

Because of the promising results in so many areas, especially with regard to SAD, scientists have identified the need for even more research into the potential benefits of light therapy for depression and other mental issues. They believe light therapy could prove useful in treating other types of nonseasonal depression as well as sleep-wake disorders, eating disorders, ADHD and more.

What Light Therapy Products Are Available for Depression?

The majority of light therapy products available at present are specifically for the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. But with the explosion of the phototherapy industry and the depth of research currently being published about the benefits of light therapy for depression of all types, this is expected to change.

Below are two examples of light therapy products for depression currently on the market.

Verilux HappyLight Lucent Light Therapy Lamp

The Verilux HappyLight Lucent is a portable light therapy lamp that helps with increased energy, mood, focus and sleep. It mimics the compact design of an e-reader, but delivers full-spectrum, bright white light at a 10,000 lux intensity to alleviate SAD symptoms.

Theralite Aura Bright Light Therapy Lamp

The Theralite Aura Bright Light Therapy Lamp is designed as an adjustable desk lamp with four settings. It also delivers 10,000 lux of white light to boost energy, improve mood and alleviate other symptoms of SAD.

Do You Deal With Depression?

It’s important to consider all your options when fighting depression. If you suspect you might have depression, or if you’ve already received a diagnosis, talk to your physician and/or your mental health professional about whether light therapy could be part of the solution for you.

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