Well Being

Everything You Need To Know About Light Therapy (Including That It’s Not Just For S.A.D.)

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Light therapy boxI put a light therapy box on my Christmas list this year, something I've been meaning to try for a long time but just haven't, for some reason. I'm excited to try it out (if a little skeptical), because you read rave testimonials online from people with seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.) and depression, as well as from people without these issues who still find it gives them a winter mood or energy levels boost.

We've written various things about light therapy and choosing a light therapy box in the past, but since it's the season for dark days (and the seasonal depression that accompanies), I put together this all-in-one guide to basic questions like what is light therapy, how does it work, who should try it and what to look for in a light therapy box. 

What is light therapy? 
Light therapy is used to treat depression and seasonal affective disorder by stimulating serotonin production in the brain. It's considered by psychiatrists (including the American Psychiatric Association) and most in the medical community to be the most effective non-drug treatment for seasonal depression.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, between 50% and 80% of people using light therapy to treat S.A.D. experience a complete recovery from symptoms. In one 2006 study, light therapy worked as well as Prozac at alleviating symptoms of winter depression, and it did so in less time and side effects.

How does light therapy work? 

Most popular antidepressants help boost serotonin by blocking its reabsorption, or reuptake, by our cells, thereby increasing our overall serotonin levels. Light therapy actually works by stimulating the production of new serotonin (along with other hormones) in our brains.

It does this by triggering eye receptors. Humans have light receptors in our retinas that interpret signals from rays of light. They then send information to our brains that stimulates the production or regulation of various hormones, including serotonin and melatonin.

Light therapy works by stimulating the eye same receptors that natural sunlight does and, in doing so, increase our production of serotonin. Devises usually come in the form of small- to medium-sized light therapy boxes or lamps (though some places are getting innovative with light therapy — in Sweden, its available at bus stops). Most light therapy boxes are designed to be used for about 30 minutes each morning.

Who should use light therapy? 

Anyone! Light therapy is used to treat depression and S.A.D., but it can also be used by those without mood disorders. The dose of artificial sunlight could still boost your mood. And it could also help your body absorb nutrients more effectively.

Can I get a tan from light therapy? (Or skin cancer?) 

Unlike tanning beds, light therapy devices filter out most ultraviolet light rays, which are the type that cause sunburns, skin cancer and eye damage. Look for a light therapy box that emits as little UV light as possible at the highest intensity. Some light therapy box are designed to treat skin disorders, not mood disorders, and these boxes tend to emit more UV light.

Choosing a light therapy box

Light therapy boxes are not terribly expensive, especially compared to the cost of some antidepressants. The cheapest models start around $35, though they can cost $200+. Try searching for light therapy boxes on Amazon, Drugstore.com or other drugstore-type websites — you'll turn up ample models. How to choose?

Pay attention to light Intensity: 10,000 lux is standard. You can go lower, but then you have to use it longer (using a 10,000 lux light for 30 minutes each day produces the same effects as using a 2,500 lux light for two hours). You'll also have to choose between white and blue light. There's some evidence blue light works better, but nothing conclusive. LED lights are more efficient and effective than florescent or incandescent lights.

Photo: The Last Word On Nothing