What may be a good treatment for one type of depression may be good for another. Take light therapy for depression, for instance. Doctors have successfully treated seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a mild depression caused by reduced exposure to sunlight in winter months, with light therapy – spending a prescribed amount of time each day in front of artificial light that replicates the spectrum of sunlight. Light therapy may one day be used for arthritis-related depression, too.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine discovered an interesting finding after reviewing 20 studies. “We found light therapy is an effective treatment not only for SAD but other types of depression as well,” says study leader Robert Golden, MD, professor and chairman of psychiatry.

Dr. Golden and his researchers reviewed studies of people aged 18 to 65 with a diagnosed mood disorder. Participants were grouped into four categories: bright light for SAD, bright light for non-seasonal depression, dawn simulation (simulating early dawn with artificial light at lower levels) for SAD and bright light with antidepressants for non-SAD. In every category, participants’ moods improved, with greater improvement found with a combination of antidepressants and light therapy. “The findings [for light therapy] are as strong or as striking” as those for conventional medications used as treatments for depression, according to Dr. Golden.

More studies are needed to provide definitive evidence on the effectiveness of light therapy for depression. Still, Dr. Golden says, “Light therapy may be a reasonable alternative to more established forms of treatment, including medication and psychotherapy.”

Light Up

Getting relief for depression may be as easy as spending 15 to 30 minutes outside in the sun every day. What boosts mood is the effect of light registering on the brain through the eyes. But if winter outdoor time isn’t practical for you, try artificial light therapy for depression.

At home or at the doctor’s office, Cleveland Clinic patients spend 10 to 15 minutes in front of a light box each day, increasing sessions incrementally to 90 minutes. People with lupus, who tend to be sun-sensitive, need to take care because light boxes give off ultraviolet A rays just as the sun does. The SunBox Company is one source for light boxes.