Is Light Therapy Effective for SAD?

Light therapy is a popular alternative treatment for SAD, seasonal affective disorder, but is it really effective, that is the question we explore with this visitor…

Aside from any conversation about healthy diet (to make this quick) what do you know about the light therapy lamps for SAD? Do they really work? I have read that they should come down from above your head and shine down on your eyes. Others say they sit in front of them, etc. Also I would be concerned about damage to the eyes. Should it be full spectrum lighting. I hate to spend money if they are not even really effective. What do you think? Thank you. Gayle

Hi Gayle,

First I’d like to say that I have not used light therapy for SAD myself, so unlike most of the information I share on this blog, I’m not speaking from personal experience on this particular issue. However, my understanding from what others tell me and my research indicate that light therapy is an effective approach for seasonal affective disorder for many people, as well as other types of depression, jet lag, insomnia, PMS, OCD, and shift-work issues.

When I lived in Ohio I did suffer with SAD, but I moved to the Southwest desert six years ago where it is sunny most days of the year and that problem went away for me. So if you have severe seasonal affective disorder, that is something you might consider.

When picking out a light therapy box here are a few things to look for:

  1. There are a variety of different light therapy boxes that address a variety of issues, make sure it is a box designed specifically for addressing SAD.
  2. The light should come at your eyes from above, not directly in front or below.
  3. Be sure to check on the safety of the light therapy box you purchase. It should filter out or shield ultraviolet light, as UV light can damage the eyes and skin.
  4. Don’t look directly into the light.
  5. The light therapy box must contain adequate intensity to be effective from a safe distance.
  6. A level of 10,000 lux for 30 minutes in the morning is recommend if using bright white light- which is full spectrum, and a level 2500 lux for two hours per day if using a blue light. Most people find it most effective if done in the morning, but some people find it more effective in the evening, so you’ll want to experiment.
  7. Some people believe blue light is more effective than white light, but it comes with a higher risk of damaging the eyes.
  8. Always discuss treatment options with your health care provider.

Response to light therapy usually occurs within a week, however it may take up to four weeks for some people.

It is believed that seasonal affective disorder occurs because of a lack of serotonin, a crucial neurotransmitter that is responsible for our mood, sleep, and eating patterns, and too much melatonin during daylight hours, an important hormone that brings on sleep. This is sometimes called an imbalance or mal-functioning in the circadian rhythms or internal body clock.

Melatonin is typically released at night when its dark. People who don’t produce enough melatonin often have insomnia. Serotonin is released during the day in response to light. Insufficient levels of serotonin are linked to many different types of depression, as well as OCD, addiction, food cravings and much more. During the dark and dreary months without much sunshine, that many parts of the country receive in the winter, melatonin may be released in the day and serotonin may be suppressed. This results in feeling dreary, down, sad, lethargic, etc. as the brain thinks it’s time to go to sleep and prepares to do so.

Light therapy works by sending waves of light into the eye and activating the hypothalamus to stimulate the pineal gland to stimulate more serotonin and suppress melatonin, thus resulting in a decrease or elimination of SAD symptoms.

Other Ways to Stimulate Serotonin

I’d also like to point out that since we know SAD and other forms of depression are directly linked to insufficient levels of serotonin, there are other steps one can take to increase and balance their serotonin levels.

  1. Avoid sugar, nicotine, alcohol, caffeine and other mind altering substance. All of these substances stimulate excessive levels of serotonin and then a severe decline, which ultimate leads to an imbalance or deficiency in serotonin and other important neurotransmitters that affect our mood.
  2. Get regular exercise. Exercise increases serotonin levels naturally. A simple brisk walk five or six times a week is one of the easiest, most effective and affordable methods for increasing serotonin. However, don’t engage in extreme exercise, as this will deplete serotonin and other important neurotransmitters.
  3. Avoid white flour, other refined foods and too many complex carbohydrates. These too will result in an initial boost to serotonin, but then a severe crash.
  4. Maintain regular sexual activity. Orgasms, whether through lovemaking or self-pleasuring will stimulate a variety of feel good neurotransmitters and hormones. However, because of this, orgasms have the potential to be addictive, so moderation is important.
  5. Eat more protein and healthy fat. Serotonin and other neurotransmitters are derived from amino acids and fat. Amino acids are derived from protein – preferably meat protein. Healthy fats can be found in sunflower oil, olive oil, yogurt, butter, nuts and seeds.
  6. Engage in spiritual, life-affirming or self-nurturing activities. Spiritual activities like prayer, meditation, yoga, time with nature, deep breathing exercises, community service, listening to music, art, dance or other creative outlets etc., stimulate serotonin and other neurotransmitters as well.
  7. Seek and maintain nurturing relationships. Loving, intimate relationships that nurture us and make our life full and meaningful also increase serotonin and other mood enhancing neurotransmitters. On the other hand, abusive, neglectful relationships that suck the life out of us will deplete them.

Light Therapy Cautions:

Although light therapy is generally considered safe and effective for SAD and other conditions, some people may not respond as positively. Anytime you manipulate neurotransmitters and hormones in the brain there is potential for unexpected results. Neurotransmitters are very sensitive and are affected by many different variables. Diet, genetics, environmental toxins, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, exercise, sleep, sexual activity, violence or abuse all have a powerful effect on neurotransmitters and could impact the type of results one experiences.

Additionally all systems in the body are interconnected and if other systems are not functioning properly, the stimulation of hormones and neurotransmitters can result in exacerbating an issue in another system.

Sometimes for reasons unknown, manipulation of neurotransmitters can have a counter-productive effect and result in making matters worse. So it is very important to be under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider. Be sure to pay close attention to how your body and mind responds to the light therapy and discontinue use immediately if you feel worse. Let a friend or family member know that you will be engaging in this therapy so they too can watch for any extreme changes in mood or personality, in case your perception becomes impaired by treatment.

This is especially true for people who also have bipolar disorder or clinical depression. Although rare, there are some cases where light therapy has triggered episodes of mania for people who are bipolar and thoughts of suicide for people with severe depression.

Some people experience too much energy, feel hyper or have difficulty with sleep if they receive too much light exposure or if they use the light in the evening hours. Adjustments may need to be made accordingly.

As with any therapy, natural or otherwise, results for light therapy use with SAD will vary from person to person. What works for one may not work for another. Always do your homework and have a thorough understanding of everything involved in a particular healing approach prior to giving it a try, be it seasonal affective disorder or any other condition.

Best Regards

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