What once was prescribed mostly to people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), light therapy may actually be effective in treating clinical depression, as well, according to a November 2015 study published in JAMA Psychiatry.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) studied the emotional states of 122 patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) who were instructed to use light therapy, which is the practice of being exposed to a fluorescent light box (which can be found online and in many national retail stores) that closely mimics the natural light of the sun's rays. This specialized light has been shown to boost serotonin (a hormone associated with mood) levels in the brain.
The study participants used the light therapy just as one would in real life: sitting in front of the light box for 30 minutes every morning. Some of the patients during the eight-week study were prescribed a common antidepressant (fluoxetine), while others were either given placebo pills and placebo light box devices instead of the real therapies.
The outcome: Light therapy was effective in many of the patients, most notably in those who were also taking the meds. This could be great news for the millions of people who struggle with MDD, because light therapy is affordable, easy to find, and comes with minimal side effects.
"Patients can easily use light therapy along with other treatments such as antidepressants and psychotherapy," said Dr. Raymond Lam, UBC professor and psychiatrist at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, in a press release. "It's important to find new treatments because our current therapies don't work for everyone. Our findings should help to improve the lives of people with depression."
Why Patients With Depression Should Look Toward the Light
While those diagnosed with either MDD or SAD may have different causes behind their mood issues, the light therapy box works the same way in both patients.
"There's absolutely no reason to think that the fundamental systems that are affected in SAD are different," says Norman Rosenthal, MD, psychiatrist, author of Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder, and researcher who first described and named SAD, as well as developed light therapy as a treatment. "And there are many, many studies pointing to the connection between serotonin and light."
Dr. Rosenthal hopes this most recent research will point more doctors in the right direction. "This research is telling fellow clinicians to try light therapy before sending their patients to possibly more costlier and less proven treatments," he says. "It should be higher on the food chain, especially since light therapy is relatively inexpensive. So that's why a study like this one is very important."