Light Therapy for Seasonal Depression: What works?

It’s that time a year again! How did it come back so fast? With summer winding down and fall weather returning, depression can rear its ugly head for those who experience seasonal dips in their mood. Light therapy for seasonal depression works. Often called “light box therapy” because historically it required sitting in front of a large box of light to get treatment. Nowadays, there are more options for light therapy treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder. The best light therapy is the one that you will actually use!

 

Please read my post from last year on this same topic of seasonal depression. It goes into much more detail about how to use this type of treatment, who may be a good candidate, and possible side effects (risks and benefits).



What happens with Seasonal Depression?

People who have been feeling good for many months come to see me saying, “I just don’t understand it. A couple weeks ago I noticed I don’t feel as good. I’m not happy anymore and I don’t think my antidepressants are working”.

 

Suddenly we realize it’s Fall again! How did it catch us off-guard? This is the same time a dip in their mood happened last year and the year before that.

 

Obviously, for people that have this pattern of seasonal depression, we try to plan ahead and anticipate it. But sometimes we don’t recognize the pattern for years.

Why do we miss it?

There may be situational stressors that were going on last Fall so we determined the depression was related to that. It takes stopping to reassess and saying “Hey, wait a minute! I know you had XYZ going on last year at this time but I find it interesting that you are starting to feel lousy again this year right around the same time! Tell me historically how you do this time of year.”



Many people will go on to tell me that EVERY YEAR they feel lousy starting in a particular month. Generally, they notice they start to feel better with the time change in spring but the winter can be so LOOONG and miserable.

 

Although they may know this is a yearly pattern for themselves, sometimes they don’t recognize it as Seasonal Affective Disorder until we discuss it. And then it seems so obvious to both of us.

Light therapy for depression:

Light therapy can be as effective as an antidepressant treatment for people with seasonal depression. It’s so important to not forget this option! There are minimal side effects and the benefits can be great.

When to start light box therapy?

Many people with seasonal affective disorder experience a shift in their mood at the same time every year like clockwork. The key to minimizing these shifts is to plan ahead and anticipate it for next year. Light therapy takes several weeks to get an effect so start treatment a couple weeks ahead of the date that it usually starts.

 

Interestingly, not all people experience a shift in their mood only in fall and winter when it classically happens. Some people experience the shift in spring or summer. It is important to know YOUR pattern and make plans for treatment accordingly.



Warning about buying a lamp:

If you want to try this treatment don’t wait to order a lamp! One of my patients felt depressed last Fall and we decided that light therapy may be helpful. When they went to order it there was an eight-month waiting list! Their lamp would’ve been available just in time for spring… exactly when they start to feel at their best.

Different options for light therapy in the treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Like all technology, there are continual advances. With light therapy, new ideas and technology are being developed to make it more convenient to use. With these advances, comes more powerful lights that require less time to work and portable options for people who don’t have the time to sit in one place.

Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder on-the-go: LIGHT VISOR

In this busy world, so many people just cannot sit still for long enough in the morning to get their treatment. The lack of portability used to make it impossible to recommend light therapy as a treatment for a busy population. Especially for people with kids, who are trying to not only get themselves ready in the morning but also their children.

 

The light visor is a perfect solution because they can walk around gathering all of their belongings and taking care of what they need to do while getting their treatment. Warning: they are not particularly “attractive” and I can’t imagine wearing it outside of the house. However, the visors work and allow people to have access to treatment that wouldn’t otherwise.

Here is the recommended light visor: 

Light therapy for depression using LIGHT THERAPY GLASSES?

Luminette 2 glasses in action!

A more recent advancement is light therapy glasses! How cool is that! Lightweight and comfortable, they look a little bit sci-fi but have amazing technology and they are easy to bring wherever you will use them.

Increased energy and alertness:

In addition to treating seasonal depression, light therapy glasses can increase energy during the day and improve alertness. The light visor and light boxes can also do this. People who use light therapy often report the improved energy and alertness are the first benefits they notice.

 

Actually, people without depression use light therapy for this sole purpose: increased alertness. Some patients have told me it is equivalent to “having a cup of coffee but without the jitteriness” or “as good as an afternoon nap” to help get thru the day.

Reducing jet lag:

Because of the portability, light therapy glasses are used to help with adjusting to new time zones while traveling. They are worth the investment for those frequent travelers who don’t want to spend days adjusting each time they fly and are especially for people that need to hit the ground running. The glasses can help reset the sleep clock for a smooth transition.

Luminette 2 glasses:

I recommend the Luminette 2 glasses because they are equivalent to a 10,000 Lux lamp. There are other light therapy glasses out there that can help with resetting the sleep clock but they aren’t equivalent to 10,000 Lux so their effects on mood may not be as significant.

Coupon for 20% off!

Enter the code WELBY at checkout and receive 20% off your order of Luminette 2 glasses!

 

These glasses are a huge improvement in convenience and portability over table-top lamps and I recommend them for that reason. Remember, the most effective light therapy is the one you will use!

“Classic” Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder: LIGHT BOX THERAPY

With more powerful lights available than in past years, most people don’t require an hour every morning to sit there. For those of you who have a light box from years ago- check its strength as you may find it is well below the current technology. The recommended lights have 10,000 Luz strength.

 

Learn how to effectively use your stationary lamp and what qualities to look for when buying a lamp in THIS post. It is important to use the lamps properly or they are less likely to work.

 

Here are 3 light box therapy lamps I recommend. Which one you get depends on where you will be using them. If you will use your lamp at home and have a place to put the larger lamp I would get that. I included 2 options for the larger lamps- both are high quality and reliable but have different looks to them. The choice is dependent on your personal preference

 

If you are bringing the light to put in your office at work, or don’t have a place to put the larger lamp than get the smaller “Boxelite” from Northern Light Technology. This still has 10,000 Lux where many other portable lights are not as strong. For the smaller lamp, make sure to position it in the right way so it is aimed at your face. There is less wiggle-room to move around when using a smaller sized lamp.

I hope you feel more equipped to recognize seasonal depression and will plan accordingly for years to come in order to minimize the time spent depressed. Write when to start light therapy on your calendar for next year or put a reminder in your phone. Don’t let it sneak up on you!

 

Looking for more information on treating depression? I have written many posts full of self-help tips to help you manage it and antidepressant education to empower you in your treatment. You can find these posts HERE.

 

This post includes affiliate links. I do not recommend anything that I don’t believe in and wouldn’t use myself! Purchasing a product through a link on this site helps offset the cost of running of this website by providing a small commission yet without any extra cost to you! Thank you for your support.

 

Seasonal Affective Disorder? Light therapy can help!

Seasonal Affective Disorder typically occurs in the fall and winter with a remission in spring and summer. People with Seasonal Affective Disorder have symptoms of depression that follow a seasonal pattern. The depression can be significantly impairing even if it doesn’t last all year long. Light therapy can be very helpful. There are various options for different lights for Seasonal Affective Disorder treatment.

 

About 5% of the US population experiences Seasonal Affective Disorder with symptoms that last approximately 40% of the year. It is more common in females than males (4:1) and often happens in women of childbearing age.

 

If you are struggling with seasonal affective disorder lights may help! 




Seasonal affective disorder can present with:

  • lack of enjoyment and pleasure,
  • poor concentration,
  • sleep changes,
  • decreased energy,
  • increased carbohydrate cravings
  • excessive eating resulting in weight gain.

Lights for Seasonal Affective Disorder can be as helpful as an antidepressant!

Light therapy has been shown to be an effective for Seasonal Affective Disorder treatment. It can be as helpful as an antidepressant or cognitive behavioral therapy.

 

Generally, it takes 1-3 weeks of daily exposure to light to have improvement in symptoms. Because of this, it is best to start treatment at least 2 weeks prior to the time of year you typically experience symptoms of seasonal depression.

 

According to Dr. Michael Craig Miller, at Harvard Health Publishing:

“If lack of sunlight causes or contributes to seasonal affective disorder, then getting more light may reverse it. Bright light works by stimulating cells in the retina that connect to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that helps control circadian rhythms. Activating the hypothalamus at a certain time every day can restore a normal circadian rhythm and thus banish seasonal symptoms.”

Different options for Seasonal Affective Disorder lights:

There are many different options for light therapy products including light visors, standard light boxes, and dawn simulators. Your choice of a lamp will be based on where you want to use it (home or office) and convenience factors (can you sit still for treatment?).

 

Some of the lights are rather large but that can be advantageous. With smaller lights, you will have to take more care to keep your eyes in the therapeutic range of the light as small head movements can affect this.



Seasonal Affective Disorder lamp: Light therapy boxes

What are the recommended features?

The light should provide 10,000 lux units of illumination at a comfortable sitting distance. Make sure it is UV-filtered as UV rays are harmful to the eyes. Look for a light with white light (shown to be more effective) rather than a colored light. There is no therapeutic advantage shown to “full spectrum” or bluish lamps.

 

I recommend the following light therapy boxes:

Dawn simulators:  

Dawn simulators are used while you are sleeping. They turn on automatically during the final period of sleep and simulate the light of springtime dawn. This light has been shown to affect the body’s biological clock, suppress melatonin secretion, and to have an antidepressant effect.

 

Because it’s administered during sleep it is a convenient treatment option to try. The light intensity is around 300 lux so is much dimmer than a standard light box. Although there is less research on dawn stimulators, results have shown an increased ease of awakening, more alertness and energy, and an antidepressant effect.

 

I recommend the following dawn simulator: 

Light Visors:

If you are unable to sit still for even 15 minutes then getting a light visor may be the only option for you to get treatment. This visor will allow you to get in your treatment time while still cooking breakfast or chasing a toddler around.

 

I recommend the following light visor:

How to use Seasonal Affective Disorder lights:seasonal affective disorder

  • If you are using a light box sit 12-18 inches away from the light source but face it. Use it for 20-60 minutes each day.
  • The light should be projected downward towards the eyes to minimize any glare and to maximize peripheral retinal stimulation which is required for treatment effect,
  • Your eyes must remain open,
  • You don’t need to look directly at the light. You can read, eat, use a laptop or a cell phone.
  • Different people benefit from using light at different times of the day. Take this quiz to determine your circadian rhythm type. This will tell you the optimal time of day for you to use light therapy.

Potential side effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder treatment:

Side effects are usually minor, infrequent, and stop after a few days. To minimize side effects start with 10-15 minutes and gradually work up to 30-60 minutes depending on how much time you need for treatment effect.

 

  • Sleep disturbances are generally related to the timing of light exposure. Some people do not tolerate exposure at night and do best with morning exposure.
  • Eye irritability or strain. This may be alleviated by sitting a little further back or using a humidifier.
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Headache
  • Hypomania or mania can happen in bipolar patients so care must be taken in using light therapy if you have this disorder.

Conditions and medications to watch out for:

Please check with your doctor before using light therapy if you have:

  • Bipolar disorder,
  • Personal history of macular degeneration,
  • A family history of macular degeneration,
  • Diabetes (which can affect the retina),
  • Retinal dystrophies,
  • Porphyria,
  • Lupus,
  • Chronic actinic dermatitis,
  • Solar urticaria.

 

Certain medications can cause light sensitivity and a lightbox should not be used if you are on these medications. Ask your doctor if you are on a medication that may cause sensitivity.

 

For further discussion of the risks of light therapy click here.

How long to continue using a seasonal affective disorder lamp?

To avoid a relapse of depression, seasonal affective disorder treatment should continue thru the end of the winter season until the time when you usually spontaneously feel better. If the light therapy is discontinued too soon your depression may return within 1-2 weeks.

Other uses for light therapy:

In addition to seasonal affective disorder, light therapy can be helpful for non-seasonal depression. Light can be used as an adjunct or alternative to antidepressant medications. Light therapy can also treat certain sleep disorders related to alterations in circadian rhythm patterns such as happens in advanced sleep phase syndrome (fall asleep early and wake early in the morning) and delayed sleep phase syndrome (fall asleep late and difficulty waking during the day). Bright light therapy can help reset the “sleep clock” and allow sleep patterns to become more normalized.

 

Lights for Seasonal Affective Disorder is a great option for people who experience seasonal dips in their mood. Many people would like to avoid antidepressants and this is a great alternative to try.

 

One key is to remember to start it at the right time each year. It takes 1-3 weeks for an effect so pick a date prior to when your depression usually starts. Put a reminder on your calendar or pick a holiday like Labor Day as your yearly start date so you don’t forget.

Seasonal affective disorder