Does Light Therapy Help Seasonal Affective Disorder?

For those of you who might suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), I can relate. The short, dark days of winter can leave us wanting to hibernate and never leave the house. This issue has led me to explore some options for preventing and treating SAD. Signs and symptoms of SAD vary but often include depressed mood, lethargy, overeating, and loss of interest in activities, to name a few.  The National Institute of Mental Health defines SAD as “a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.”

Various forms of light therapy would seem to be a plausible approach to help prevent or manage symptoms of SAD. A recent review of literature examined whether or not light therapy can prevent the onset of depression when it’s used in otherwise healthy people who experience SAD. This review included 2,986 studies of various types. Only one randomized, controlled study could be found. It included 46 people comparing those who received light therapy to those who received no therapy at all. While those who received therapy did have reduced SAD symptoms, the study design had several flaws and was subject to bias.

Although light therapy is widely used and accepted as a treatment modality, the scientific evidence available is lacking to support this.  This lack of research makes it hard to draw any conclusions about whether light therapy truly is effective in preventing winter depression.   These results do not rule out the possibility of light therapy working, however, individuals need to discuss all options for treating SAD with their health care providers. It may be necessary to consider many preventive treatments for winter depression, such as medication, psychological therapies or lifestyle interventions.

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