Everyone gets the blues sometimes, but some people can feel so down that they need medical attention. More than just sadness, such serious depression is an illness that can make people feel hopeless and unable to get out of bed.
Doctors often treat depression with drugs, but medicine may not be the only option. Bright lights may also do the trick. That’s what a review commissioned by the American Psychiatric Association in Washington, D.C., has found.
Although the idea of using light to help people with depression has been around for at least 20 years, there didn’t seem to be much scientific evidence that this sort of therapy actually works. One of the many skeptics was psychiatrist Robert N. Golden of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
When Golden was invited to look into the evidence, he reviewed 173 published studies of light treatments. He found that only 20 of these studies were designed well enough to test what they were claiming to test.
A closer look at these 20 studies, however, surprised Golden. He found that people with a type of depression called SAD improved when exposed to bright lights upon waking up or right before waking up. SAD stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder and applies to people who get especially down during certain times of the year, usually winter.
Even people whose depression is not seasonal respond to light therapy, the studies showed. And if patients are taking medicines to counter depression, light therapy seems to enhance the effects of the drugs.
Doctors suspect that light therapy helps depressed people regulate their internal biological clocks—the way their bodies react to the passage of time. The best treatment for depression, some experts suggest, is to combine light therapy with efforts to sleep on a regular schedule.
Other scientists say more research is needed. Exposure to bright lights could damage your eyes or cause other, unknown side effects, they say.
So, if you’re feeling really, really sad, talk to your doctor before staring at your desk lamp. Only an expert can tell you what kind of light to use and for how long—or even if it’s the right thing to do.—E. Sohn
Bower, Bruce. 2005. Mood brighteners: Light therapy gets nod as depression buster. Science News 167(April 23):261-262. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20050423/fob7.asp .
You can learn more about depression and kids at pbskids.org/itsmylife/emotions/depression/ (PBS).