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Light Therapy

Reasons to Have One, What to Expect, Associated Risks & More

Key Points

  • Light therapy, which mimics natural sunlight, is an effective treatment for various conditions including Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), other types of depression, mood disorders, and sleep disorders.
  • The therapy works by stimulating the production of mood-enhancing brain chemicals, vitamin D, and melatonin, which helps regulate the body's circadian rhythm.
  • Light therapy can also assist frequent travelers in adapting to new time zones by adjusting their circadian clocks, offering an alternative to medication.
  • Despite its benefits, light therapy can have side effects such as headaches, eye strain, and insomnia, and may pose risks to those with bipolar disorder or certain eye conditions.
  • Light therapy boxes are accessible for home use, with treatment sessions typically ranging from 15 minutes to 3 hours.

5 Reasons You Would Need Light Therapy

1. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

SAD is a type of depression that usually begins in the late fall or early winter and resolves on its own during the spring and summer. SAD tends to be common in women, young people, and those who live far from the equator and receive fewer hours of sunlight. Symptoms of SAD may include low energy, difficulty sleeping, suicidal thoughts, and feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness, and irritability.[1] Light therapy treats SAD by exposing diagnosed individuals to bright light that mimics sunlight and that stimulates the production of vitamin D and brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine that improve mood.

2. Depression

Depression is a mood disorder characterized by symptoms including fatigue, difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, suicidal thoughts, and feelings of sadness, emptiness, anxiety, irritability, and guilt.[2] Light therapy can treat depression and other mood disorders just as it treats SAD: by stimulating the body’s production of vitamin D and brain neurotransmitters that play a role in regulating mood.[3]

3. Sleep Disorders

Insomnia, hypersomnia, and other sleep disorders occur on behalf of problems with the sleep-wake cycle and natural circadian rhythm. Sleep disorders can be caused by factors such as the use of certain medications, working a night shift, having certain medical conditions, and suffering from a mental illness like depression.[4] Light therapy can treat sleep disorders by exposing the body to light that works like natural sunlight to regulate circadian rhythm and stimulate the body’s melatonin production.[5]

4. Jet Lag

People who travel frequently and who suffer from jet lag can use light therapy to stimulate melatonin production and appropriately shift their circadian clocks. Light therapy is shown to help people adjust to a new time zone more quickly after traveling across one or more time zones.[6]

5. Avoid Use of Medications

Light therapy is an alternative treatment to antidepressants, antipsychotics, and other medications commonly used to treat SAD, depression, and other mood disorders. Antidepressants may produce side effects including nausea, diarrhea, headaches, insomnia, rashes, sexual dysfunction, and joint and muscle pain.[7] Antipsychotics may produce side effects such as sedation, dry mouth, constipation, sexual dysfunction, weight gain, and seizures.[8] Light therapy may highly appeal to those who need treatment for SAD and mood disorders but who want to avoid the use of medications.

Understanding Light Therapy

Light therapy is mainly used to treat SAD and other depressive mood disorders. Light therapy is a type of therapy in which patients sit in front of a box that emits a bright light that mimics natural sunlight.[9] Exposure to natural sunlight induces the body’s production of vitamin D, which plays a role in the release of brain neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine that regulate mood. Light therapy exposes the skin to light that can trigger vitamin D production to reduce and treat symptoms of SAD and other depressive disorders.[10]

Risks of Light Therapy

Light therapy may produce side effects including headaches, eye strain, nausea, insomnia, agitation, hyperactivity, jumpiness, and jitteriness.[11] People diagnosed with bipolar disorder may experience a manic episode following light therapy.[12]

The skin and eyes may be damaged with prolonged exposure to the UV light used in light therapy. People who use certain medications and nutritional supplements that contain melatonin, lithium, or St. John's wort may be at increased risk for eye damage since these substances make retinas more sensitive to light. People who suffer from diabetes or any type of retinal disease may also be at greater risk for eye damage than others when receiving light therapy.[12]

What to Expect with Light Therapy

Light therapy boxes can be purchased online or at stores without a prescription. Light therapy systems recommended by doctors contain a set of fluorescent bulbs installed in a box covered by a transparent screen. The light therapy box should be placed on a desk or table at a height that won’t cause strain or discomfort when the body is positioned toward the lights.[13]

People who receive light therapy are required to sit near the lightbox as they perform activities such as reading, writing, and eating. Light from the box must enter the eyes indirectly, since looking directly at the lights can lead to eye damage. To benefit from light therapy, people must angle their heads and bodies toward the light and use the light to perform activities.[13]

Light therapy treatment sessions can be performed 1 to 2 times per day for between 15 minutes and 3 hours.[13] Talk to your doctor about the length of time you should be receiving light therapy on a daily basis.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Light Therapy

  • What type of light therapy box do I need to buy?
  • Where can I find the best light therapy boxes?
  • Is receiving light therapy at a doctor’s office or hospital an option for me?
  • Where should I place the light therapy box in my home?
  • What are the common side effects of light therapy?
  • What are the risks and complications of light therapy?
  • Is it safe for other people in my household to be exposed to light therapy?
  • How should I prepare for light therapy?
  • How many hours of light therapy should I receive every day?
  • What is the best time of day to receive light therapy?
  • How long will I need light therapy to treat my condition?

Light Therapy May Also be Known as:

  • Lightbox therapy
  • Phototherapy
  • Heliotherapy
  • Bright light therapy
  • Full-spectrum light therapy
  • Daylight therapy
  • SAD therapy
  • Light treatment


Frequently asked questions

  • What conditions can light therapy treat?

    Light therapy can treat Seasonal Affective Disorder, various types of depression, mood disorders, and sleep disorders like insomnia and hypersomnia.
  • How does light therapy work?

    Light therapy works by exposing patients to a bright light that mimics natural sunlight, stimulating the production of mood-enhancing brain chemicals, vitamin D, and melatonin.
  • Can light therapy help with jet lag?

    Yes, light therapy can assist frequent travelers in adjusting to new time zones by regulating their circadian rhythm.
  • Is light therapy a good alternative to medications for mood disorders?

    Yes, light therapy offers an alternative to medications often used for mood disorders, which can sometimes have unpleasant side effects.
  • Are there any side effects or risks associated with light therapy?

    Yes, light therapy can cause headaches, eye strain, and insomnia. It may also pose risks for individuals with bipolar disorder or certain eye conditions.
  • How long does a typical light therapy session last?

    A typical light therapy session lasts between 15 minutes and 3 hours.
  • Can light therapy be done at home?

    Yes, light therapy boxes are available for home use.
  • Who should avoid using light therapy?

    Individuals with bipolar disorder or certain eye conditions should be cautious when considering light therapy due to potential risks.

Solv has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

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