Light Therapy for Depression: Does it Really Work?

light therapy for depressionThere are a variety of treatments used for depression.  Popular talk therapies include cognitive and cognitive-behavioral therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy and a variety of short-term, solution-focused therapies.

There is considerable data available supporting all of these psychosocial treatments.  And, then there are medications.  There are around a dozen antidepressants that are commonly used for depression.  The most popular among clinicians and patients are those that increase the level of serotonin, a neurochemical hypothesized to be deficient in depression, in the brain.

However, for many, counseling and drugs just do not do the trick.  Some only have a partial response to either one whereas others see no benefit.  And then there are myriad side effects that come with medications.  Many patients cannot tolerate the stomach upset, sexual dysfunction or insomnia associated with their use and stop taking the medication. And in turn, the depression comes roaring back.

Recognizing the limitations of standard depression treatments, researchers have focused their efforts on less “mainstream” approaches.  They are not considered part of mainstream treatments because of their lack of efficacy, but more as a result of them not being studied as much, and as a consequence, not adopted by the “average” clinician or professional organizations.

This caveat is an important one.  There are potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of non-clinical interventions that can provide relief from a variety of psychological ailments.  We just do not know.  A few examples of these non-mainstream treatments that do have growing research support include meditation, yoga and equine therapy.  Another is light therapy.

Non-Mainstream Treatments

Light therapy is exposure to a fluorescent light for a designated amount of time.  The manufactured light mimics actual natural outdoor light.  It is usually done 30 minutes after awakening, but some people use it throughout the day while at work or home in shorter intervals.

The exact mechanism by which light therapy seems to work is not known.  However, it is believed that light influences brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, which in turn, improves mood.

Light therapy does not have to be prescribed by a health care professional.  Anyone can buy a light therapy device, often referred to as a light box, for between $50 and $200 on Amazon.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Light therapy is not a panacea for all psychiatric disorders.  Its use has been fairly narrow.  It has been used most notably for years with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is  a type of depression that is caused by changes in the seasons.  It usually begins and ends around the same time every year, which is usually the fall.  Symptoms of SAD include low energy, sadness and mood swings that continue throughout the winter months. Things generally get better in the spring or early summer.

It was once believed that SAD was purely a psychological condition and that for some reason people attributed low mood to the winter.  Most experts now agree that there is a biological component to the illness.

The impact of light on other types of depression is less known…until now.  A recent study published in the main psychiatry journal of the American Medical Association reveals that light therapy is helpful in treating Major Depressive Disorder, one of the most common and severe forms of depression.

Researchers compared fluorescent light therapy to antidepressant medication by itself, the combination of light therapy and antidepressant medication and placebo.  Results were both promising and surprising.

Both light therapy and the combination of light therapy and medication were more effective than placebo.  This result basically means that more people got better from using lights and lights and meds together compared to no treatment.

Surprisingly, medication was not more effective than placebo.  This finding is concerning considering antidepressant medications are widely used in people who suffer from depression and can cause a number of troubling side effects.

As researchers continue to explore alternative treatments for depression, the use of light therapy should be front and center of their efforts.  The data are accumulating for its effectiveness.  Unfortunately, since light therapy is basically a self-administered treatment it may not see support from pharmaceutical  companies or organizations that exist to promote its professional who received compensation for administering somatic and psychological therapies.

Regardless of professional politics financial turf concerns, up until now little was known about the benefits of using lights to treat non-seasonal depression. Fortunately,  this thorough and well-done research study sheds light on this important topic.

*This article is adapted from Dr. Moore’s column “Kevlar for the Mind” published in Military Times.


Light Therapy for Depression: Does it Really Work?

Bret Moore, Psy.D.

Dr. Moore is a board-certified clinical psychologist and prescribing psychologist in San Antonio, TX. His recent book Taking Control of Anxiety: Small Steps for Getting the Best of Worry, Stress, and Fear was developed as a self-help guide for people struggling with anxiety and for therapists to use with their patients. Dr. Moore is also coauthor of the Handbook of Clinical Psychopharmacology for Therapists-Ninth Edition and Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology Made Simple-Fourth Edition.


APA Reference
Moore, B. (2016). Light Therapy for Depression: Does it Really Work?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 1 Aug 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Aug 2016
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