Can Light Therapy Treat Mental Illness?

This entry was posted in Mental Health on December 31, 2014 and modified on April 30, 2019

Can Light Therapy Treat Mental Illness?Light therapy has been used for a number of health problems over the last few decades. In fact, even a hundred years ago some physicians recognized the power of light to help treat physical illnesses and infections.

More recently, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) has been treated in people who get depressed in the winter months with lamps and light therapy. Now, researchers are finding that light may not just be for seasonal mental illness. It may be able to help treat people with year-round depression, anxiety and even Alzheimer’s disease.

Light Therapy and SAD

SAD was first recognized in the early 1980s as a real condition, although people living at high latitudes have always known that dark days in winter can make you feel glum. SAD is a kind of depression that affects some people in the winter months when sunlight is scarce.

Symptoms of SAD include those of major depression, like feeling sad and hopeless, lack of interest in normal activities, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, and trouble concentrating. If you have SAD, you may also experience additional symptoms:

  • Low energy or fatigue
  • A heavy feeling in the arms and legs
  • Irritability and difficulty getting along with others
  • Sleeping more than is normal
  • Gaining weight
  • Craving foods high in carbohydrates
  • Hypersensitivity to being rejected or neglected

SAD is thought to be caused by changing circadian rhythms in the winter when less light impacts this natural cycle. Brain chemicals that affect mood, serotonin and melatonin, may shift and cause the symptoms of SAD. Light therapy can restore the proper balance and involves sitting in front of a special light box for a certain period of time. It mimics natural light and seems to actually change brain chemicals for mood.

Light Therapy to Treat Major Depression 

Recent research is finding that this simple kind of treatment may not be just for SAD. If you struggle with major depression, time with a light box could help you feel better at any time of year. This may be because circadian rhythms, which are affected by seasonal daylight changes, are also disturbed in people with depression and other mental illnesses at any time of year.

Several studies have proven that light therapy can help people with depression and other issues. For instance, veterans struggling with major depression or bipolar depression were given light therapy or a placebo. Those with the light therapy experienced improved symptoms, while those with the placebo did not. In another study, elderly people with depression were given light therapy every day for three weeks. They saw significant improvement in symptoms.

Light therapy is promising not only because it works, but also because it works quickly and rarely causes side effects. The light used in light therapy is meant to mimic the sun, but with damaging ultraviolet light removed. The occasional side effects reported are mild and include slight headaches and nausea.

Light therapy could also be a good option for people who cannot or do not want to take antidepressants. For instance, elderly people may not be able to take antidepressants because they interfere with other medications. Pregnant women may also wish to avoid antidepressants and could benefit from light therapy.

The promise of light therapy for treating depression is great. Studies for its use in other conditions, like anxiety disorders and Alzheimer’s disease, are positive but minimal. Light boxes pose little risk, so it makes sense to study this therapy more and to use it for more people who struggle with mood disorders. It can’t hurt to try it, after all, and it could help immensely.

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