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How Does Light Therapy Treat Depression?

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Posted By Alex Perez - Mental Health Writer, B.A.

Guest post by Mark Hensley, founder of Povverful and part of Heliotherapy Research Institute

How does light therapy treat depression? Depression is a difficult disorder to live with. It can cause feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and isolation. 

Light therapy is an effective treatment for mood disorders such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or major depressive disorder (MDD). There are many different ways to use light therapy for this condition. Apart from treating depression, you can also reap many other benefits, including skin improvements. One such device is the Omnilux contour light therapy. Read more about Omnilux contour light therapy at Heliotherapy Research Institute.

In this article, we’ll explore how light therapy works and the research behind its effectiveness in treating depression.

What Is Light Therapy? 

Light therapy, also known as phototherapy or heliotherapy, is a form of treatment in which exposure to specific wavelengths of light can improve mood and treat depression.

Light therapy causes changes in brain chemistry by affecting the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

The treatment is non-invasive with no known side effects when used correctly. It has also been found to be effective for people of all ages.

There are different types of light therapy available depending on what you want your outcome to be:

  • Broad-spectrum light

This type of light is a full-spectrum, natural white light. It mimics the sun and can improve mood by increasing serotonin levels in your brain to increase energy, concentration and elevate your overall mood. This form of therapy has been found most effective for those with winter depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

  • Lightboxes and lamps

These are the most common form of light therapy, which people use at home or work. It has been found that sitting near a lamp with full-spectrum white light (5000k to 6000k) is just as effective as using a box on your desk. This form of therapy can also work to increase energy, elevate mood and reduce fatigue.

  • Light therapy glasses

These are not approved for treating depression but have shown some success at increasing alertness in people with sleep disorders like narcolepsy. It has also been found to be useful in preventing jet lag when traveling across multiple time zones.

  • Infrared sauna

This is a box that emits infrared radiation. It can increase your mood by increasing serotonin levels, elevating your mood, and relaxing muscles.

These types of therapy are designed to treat depression by increasing serotonin levels, but can also increase dopamine and norepinephrine. It is most effective when combined with other forms of treatment, including medications and auriculotherapy or talk therapy.

How Light Therapy Works To Treat Depression

light therapy depression

Light therapy works by using bright lights and other techniques to affect the brain’s chemistry to elevate mood. The light is administered through a device such as an electronic lightbox. The lights are designed to replicate bright sunlight and increase serotonin production which helps elevate moods.

Light therapy is FDA approved for the treatment of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), but patient information indicates that it can be used to treat other forms of depression as well. Lightboxes typically use a combination of fluorescent white or blue lights and some may include red (or infrared) lights as well.

Light therapy can be an effective treatment for depression, but it is important to understand the underlying cause of the condition and rule out other potential causes such as nutritional deficiencies or thyroid problems. 

The treatment can be administered in different ways depending on the patient’s preference including sitting close to the lightbox for 30 minutes each day, using 15-minute sessions several times throughout the day, or simply wearing special glasses that simulate outdoor lighting conditions.

Side Effects Of Light Therapy 

light therapy depression

There are several side effects of light therapy, including headache and nausea. It usually only lasts the first few days or weeks that you use it. Afterward, they should go away completely. 

Some other potential side effects of light therapy are eye pain, blurry vision, and eyestrain. Headache is the most common side effect. Nausea is also very common during the first few days or weeks that you use it. Afterward, these side effects should go away completely as well.

If you have an existing eye condition, such as glaucoma or retinal problems – discuss it with your doctor before starting light therapy. It is also not recommended for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Also, people with bipolar disorder should be careful because light therapy can cause manic episodes.

How Long Does It Take For Light Therapy To Work For Depression?

light therapy depression

Depression is a very serious illness that can affect your quality of life. As with most illnesses, it takes time to find the right treatment for depression and light therapy could be one option you should consider. 

It can take up to six weeks before you notice any improvement in your symptoms. However, it is likely that at least one of the first few sessions will make a difference and light therapy should be continued until these improvements continue for two consecutive days.

Light therapy works best to treat depression when combined with other forms of treatment like medications, counseling, or lifestyle changes. 

You should try and attend at least one light therapy session every day for 30 minutes while you are working on making these necessary lifestyle changes. 

You will probably notice some improvement in your symptoms during this time but it may not be enough to improve your mood or motivation levels on its own. If this is the case, doctors recommend diversifying treatments by adding another form of treatment like medications or counseling to your therapy.


Light therapy has been one of the best ways to treat depression according to many doctors. Treatment using light therapy has few side effects but is considered safe for most people. Light therapy is effective because it can be used on its own or combined with other treatments such as medications.

Treatment using light therapy has been around for many years but it is now becoming more popular because of its success rate and ease of use. People who are looking to treat their depression without medications should consider talking to a doctor about light therapy as an option.

Light treatment not only treats symptoms of depression but can also be used preventively.

Mayoclinic: Light therapy

Healthline: How Does Light Therapy Treat Depression?

Midcity: Does Light Therapy for Depression Actually Work?

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