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Can Light Therapy Treat Depression?

Light therapy is a novel treatment that is known to help in the treatment of many health conditions like depression. Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is a type of therapy used to treat seasonal affective disorder. This condition has been renamed major depressive disorder with seasonal patterns. In light therapy, you are exposed to a source of artificial light to treat several conditions apart from depression, including sleep disorders. Here’s everything you need to know about can light therapy treat depression.

What is Light Therapy?

Light therapy or phototherapy is a type of alternative treatment that is used to treat seasonal affective disorder and other health conditions.(1,2,3) Light therapy exposes a person to artificial light. During a session of light therapy, you will be made to work or sit near a device known as the light therapy box.(4,5) This box gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light or sunlight. Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that occurs only at a certain time of the year, most commonly in the winter or fall.(6,7,8)

Light therapy is believed to have an impact on the brain chemicals that are directly linked to sleep and mood. This helps ease the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. A light therapy box is also used to help treat other forms of depression and even sleep disorders. Light therapy is sometimes also referred to as bright light therapy.

How Does Light Therapy Work To Treat Depression?

The underlying concept of light therapy is to compensate for the lack of exposure to sunlight. This lack of exposure to natural light is believed to be the cause of major depressive disorder with seasonal patterns, which is the medical term for seasonal affective disorder.

You will be advised to sit near the light therapy box that emits a strong light. This light mimics natural sunlight, but there are several variations to this. A unit of measure known as lux estimates the amount of light that is used in this therapy. The standard output of a light therapy box can be anywhere between 2,500 and 10,000 lux.(9)

For people with seasonal affective disorder, it doesn’t mean that the treatment will begin in the winter. Light therapy for this condition has to be started in the fall, and treatment sessions need to be continued all the way till early spring. The light therapy sessions typically last for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. The length of these sessions also depends on how well a person is able to handle the treatment, as well as the strength of the light therapy box. A person who is new to light therapy might begin the treatment with shorter treatments and increase the session timings as they get comfortable with the therapy. However, the more powerful the lightbox, the shorter will be the treatment sessions.(10)

The exact reason as to why light therapy is effective in treating certain forms of depression is still being researched. One theory put forth by experts is that light naturally boosts the production of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is the important ‘feel-good’ chemical in your brain. However, many experts believe that the success of light therapy is actually only a placebo effect.(11,12,13)

Why Is Light Therapy Done?

Many people try out light therapy for the following reasons:

  • Your doctor may recommend it for seasonal affective disorder or any other mental health condition.
  • This is a safe treatment and has mild to no side effects, due to which many people prefer to use light therapy.
  • You may want to increase the effectiveness of your depression medication or combine it with psychotherapy or mental health counseling.
  • Many people choose light therapy in an attempt to avoid having to take antidepressant medications while they are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Light therapy may allow you to take a lower dosage of your antidepressant drug.

What are the Pros and Cons of Light Therapy?

There are several advantages of light therapy. It is possible to do light therapy at home, also by purchasing or renting the light therapy boxes. Some of the benefits of light therapy include:(14)

  • It is a safe and non-invasive treatment.
  • It is a convenient method of treatment.

There are very few or mild side effects associated with light therapy.

At the same time, there are some adverse aspects of light therapy, and some side effects may occur. These include:

Usually, though, these side effects are not serious, and most side effects can be resolved by modifying the duration and intensity of the therapy sessions.(15,16) Other treatments can also be used to reduce these side effects, including:

If you want to try light therapy, you should first consult a doctor if you suffer from any of these conditions:

  • Any type of eye condition
  • Sensitive skin
  • A history of skin cancer, even if someone in your family has it(17)


Many doctors and psychologists recommend that light therapy for treating depression should be used in combination with other treatments, like psychotherapy or a medication regimen. It is more efficient if light therapy is used as a supplemental therapy instead of the primary treatment method.

Apart from this, people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder should try to remain more physically active in the winter months. In the winter season, people usually tend to be more laid back and sedentary. Exercising regularly in the winter can help boost your mood.

Light therapy has been found to be effective in treating major depressive disorder with seasonal patterns, other forms of depression, and even sleeping disorders like insomnia. However, the exact reason why light therapy is effective remains unclear. There can be some mild side effects to using light therapy, most of which can be easily relieved. If you want to try out light therapy, it is a good idea to bring it up with your doctor.


  1. Glickman, G., Byrne, B., Pineda, C., Hauck, W.W. and Brainard, G.C., 2006. Light therapy for seasonal affective disorder with blue narrow-band light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Biological psychiatry, 59(6), pp.502-507.
  2. Terman, M., 2007. Evolving applications of light therapy. Sleep medicine reviews, 11(6), pp.497-507.
  3. Hamblin, M.R. and Demidova, T.N., 2006, February. Mechanisms of low level light therapy. In Mechanisms for low-light therapy (Vol. 6140, p. 614001). International Society for Optics and Photonics.
  4. Terman, M., Terman, J.S., Quitkin, F.M., McGrath, P.J., Stewart, J.W. and Rafferty, B., 1989. Light therapy for seasonal affective disorder. Neuropsychopharmacology, 2(1), pp.1-22.
  5. Rosenthal, N.E., Sack, D.A., Gillin, J.C., Lewy, A.J., Goodwin, F.K., Davenport, Y., Mueller, P.S., Newsome, D.A. and Wehr, T.A., 1984. Seasonal affective disorder: a description of the syndrome and preliminary findings with light therapy. Archives of general psychiatry, 41(1), pp.72-80.
  6. Magnusson, A., 2000. An overview of epidemiological studies on seasonal affective disorder. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 101(3), pp.176-184.
  7. Magnusson, A. and Boivin, D., 2003. Seasonal affective disorder: an overview. Chronobiology international, 20(2), pp.189-207.
  8. Partonen, T. and Lönnqvist, J., 1998. Seasonal affective disorder. CNS drugs, 9(3), pp.203-212.
  9. Eagles, J.M., 2009. Light therapy and seasonal affective disorder. Psychiatry, 8(4), pp.125-129.
  10. Lam, R.W., Levitt, A.J., Levitan, R.D., Enns, M.W., Morehouse, R., Michalak, E.E. and Tam, E.M., 2006. The Can-SAD study: a randomized controlled trial of the effectiveness of light therapy and fluoxetine in patients with winter seasonal affective disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(5), pp.805-812.
  11. Avery, D.H., Kizer, D., Bolte, M.A. and Hellekson, C., 2001. Bright light therapy of subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder in the workplace: morning vs. afternoon exposure. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 103(4), pp.267-274.
  12. Botanov, Y. and Ilardi, S.S., 2013. The acute side effects of bright light therapy: a placebo-controlled investigation. Plos one, 8(9), p.e75893.
  13. Tomaz de Magalhães, M., Núñez, S.C., Kato, I.T. and Ribeiro, M.S., 2016. Light therapy modulates serotonin levels and blood flow in women with headache. A preliminary study. Experimental Biology and Medicine, 241(1), pp.40-45.
  14. Terman, M. and Terman, J.S., 2005. Light therapy for seasonal and nonseasonal depression: efficacy, protocol, safety, and side effects. CNS spectrums, 10(8), pp.647-663.
  15. Terman, M. and Terman, J.S., 1999. Bright light therapy: side effects and benefits across the symptom spectrum. The Journal of clinical psychiatry.
  16. Kogan, A.O. and Guilford, P.M., 1998. Side effects of short-term 10,000-lux light therapy. American Journal of Psychiatry, 155(2), pp.293-294.
  17. Rohrbach, D.J., Zeitouni, N.C., Muffoletto, D., Saager, R., Tromberg, B.J. and Sunar, U., 2015. Characterization of nonmelanoma skin cancer for light therapy using spatial frequency domain imaging. Biomedical optics express, 6(5), pp.1761-1766.

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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:January 28, 2021

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