Light Therapy Promising for Treating Major Depression
Posted By Dr. Mercola | January 26 2011
A clinical trial suggests that bright light therapy could help treat symptoms of major depression in older adults. The trial looked at close to 90 adults aged 60 or over who had been diagnosed with clinical depression.
About half of the patients were randomly assigned to bright light therapy for three weeks. This involved spending an hour each morning with the same kind of light-therapy box as that used for treating seasonal affective disorder.
"The results of the trial showed those given bright light therapy made improvements over the controls, and the improvements were comparable to the use of antidepressant drugs ... The light-therapy group also showed an increased level in the evening of the sleep-promoting hormone, melatonin, and a decrease in levels of cortisol, the stress hormone."
Dr. Mercola's Comments:
Light therapy has been used successfully for more than a decade to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or depression that typically occurs in the winter months. This new study shows that a light box can also help treat year-round major depression, and it can do so as well as antidepressant drugs.
Depression is a pervasive problem in the United States, impacting close to 15 million Americans; it's also the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15-44. This is a very serious illness, and it can be terminal. People commit suicide due to depression each and every day, and many of them have sought help or are taking antidepressant drugs, with little or no improvement.
This is why "alternative" tools like light therapy should be considered by each and every person suffering from symptoms of major depression. With virtually no side effects and a proven track record of effectiveness, by adding light therapy to your treatment you've got everything to gain and nothing to lose.
How Does Light Therapy Work?
Serotonin, the brain hormone associated with mood elevation, rises with exposure to bright light and falls with decreased sun exposure. This has been proven by many scientific studies, including one reported in the well-respected medical journal Lancet in 2002. This study measured blood levels of serotonin, finding that production of serotonin by the brain was directly related to the duration of bright sunlight.
Likewise, in the latest study, people who were exposed to bright blue light for an hour each morning for just three weeks experienced more improvements in their depressive symptoms than the control group, which was exposed to red light. They also had increased levels of melatonin in the evening, which helps with sleep and regulating your internal body clock, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Further, the improvements felt by the light-therapy group were comparable to those experienced by using antidepressant drugs.
More Support for Beneficial Blue Light
Blue light is emerging as particularly beneficial for mood regulation. One study from researchers of the Light Research Program at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia found that blue light strengthens and stimulates connections between areas of your brain that process emotion and language.
This means that blue light may, in turn, help people to better handle emotional challenges and regulate mood over time. Blue light may be even more effective than the bright white light often used in light boxes to treat SAD and other forms of depression. And a 2006 study found that blue light also worked better than red light in treating SAD symptoms.
Blue light is prevalent in outdoor light, so your body absorbs the most during the summer and much less in the winter. Because of this, the researchers suggested that adding blue light to indoor atmospheres, as opposed to the standard yellow lights typically used, may help boost mood and productivity year-round, and especially during the winter.
Why Antidepressants are Far From Your Only (or Best) Choice
If you're suffering from symptoms of depression, you should seek medical help right away -- but I highly recommend choosing a practitioner who will not simply write you a prescription for antidepressant drugs. When looking at the research literature, short-term trials show that antidepressants do NOT provide any clinically significant benefits for mild to moderate depression, compared to a placebo.
And as you know, all drugs have benefit-to-risk ratios, so if a drug is as effective as a placebo in relieving symptoms, it really doesn't make sense to use them as a first line of defense. And yet doctors all over America prescribe them as if they were indeed sugar pills!
Long-term studies also indicate that of people with major depression, only about 15 percent that are treated with an antidepressant go into remission and stay well for a long period of time. The remaining 85 percent start having continuing relapses and become chronically depressed -- and there are now questions over whether these drugs may actually be causing depression.
They're also linked to increased risk of suicide and violent behavior … taking a drug that will most likely not relieve your symptoms and may actually increase your risk of killing yourself certainly does not seem like a very rational choice. Plus, there are entirely better, and safer, options, like natural light.
Why Exposure to Sunlight is So Important for Your Mood
If you're suffering from depression, the best choice you can make, light-wise, is to spend as much time outdoors in the sun as possible. If you have the resources, taking a vacation to a tropical or subtropical environment, or even relocating there for the winter, is an excellent option, but even taking a walk in the sun at lunchtime can help (especially if it's warm enough for you to do so with your bare skin exposed, such as shorts and shirtless for men or wearing a sports bra for women).
This will not only expose you to the beneficial blue light prevalent in outdoor light, but it will also help you to optimize your vitamin D levels.
Making sure you're getting enough sunlight exposure to have healthy vitamin D levels is a crucial factor in treating depression or keeping it at bay.
One previous study found that people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who had normal levels. Vitamin D deficiency is actually more the norm than the exception, and has previously been implicated in both psychiatric and neurological disorders.
Vitamin D receptors have been identified throughout the human body, and that includes in your brain. Researchers have located metabolic pathways for vitamin D in the hippocampus and cerebellum of the brain, areas that are involved in planning, processing of information, and the formation of new memories.
Sufficient vitamin D is also imperative for proper functioning of your immune system to combat inflammation, and other research has discovered that depressed people tend to have higher levels of inflammation in their brains.
So I can't stress enough, especially during the dark, cold days of winter, how vitally important it is for you to keep on top of your vitamin D intake. To find out all you need to know about optimizing your levels, please watch my free vitamin D lecture now.
More Ways to Use Light to Boost Your Mood and Relieve Depression
After making an effort to get more natural sunlight exposure, you'll want to address the lighting in your home and office environments. Most people use incandescent lighting in their homes, but this is not a high-quality light, nor one that is recommended if you suffer from depression. Ideally, you'll want to use only high-quality full-spectrum light bulbs in your home and workspace. This is the type of lighting I personally use at home and in my office.
Full-spectrum lighting is one of the most cost-effective ways to treat SAD and also depression, and in my experience patients tend to feel a profound increase in energy and improvement in mood and sense of well-being quite quickly -- oftentimes within two to three days after exposure.
There's some confusion on this issue, but currently full-spectrum light bulbs are only available as fluorescent bulbs. There are some LED's available -- and in time they will likely become the standard -- but at the present time full-spectrum LED's are simply not cost effective for the majority of us.
Please recognize that incandescent neodymium lights are claimed to be full spectrum but they aren't and they don't have the important blue wavelengths you need.
A full-spectrum light box can also be used during the winter months, and while most use white light you can find them with blue light instead. While the blue light is thought to be more effective at relieving depressive symptoms, there is some research that shows blue light may have a slightly greater risk of harming your eyes, so avoid looking directly at the light source (with either a blue or white light box).
You can actually get many of the same benefits of a light box by replacing the regular light bulbs in your home and office with full-spectrum lighting. Neither full-spectrum lights nor blue light are a replacement for real sunlight, but they are the next best thing when it's grey and cloudy, or when it's too cold to spend time outdoors.
More Natural Tips for Treating Depression
Light therapy, including optimizing your vitamin D, is far from the only treatment strategy you can use to overcome depression. Virtually everyone with depression should also be:
- Exercising: Regular physical activity works better than antidepressant drugs to improve your mood. In fact, it's one of the most powerful strategies you can take to prevent and treat depression and boost your mood.
- Avoiding sugar: Sugar (including fructose) also has a seriously detrimental impact on your brain function. There's a great book on this subject, The Sugar Blues, written by William Dufty more than 30 years ago, that delves into this topic in great detail.
- Increasing high quality animal-based omega-3 fats: Your brain consists of about 60 percent fat, DHA specifically, so you need a constant input of essential omega-3 fats like krill oil for your brain to work properly.
In fact, one study showed that people with lower blood levels of omega-3s were more likely to have symptoms of depression and a more negative outlook while those with higher blood levels demonstrated the opposite emotional states.
- Addressing emotional stress: If you've followed my articles even a little while, you know that EFT, or the Emotional Freedom Technique, is a simple tool that I highly recommend for optimizing emotional health. Based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture to treat physical and emotional ailments for over 5,000 years, this technique works without needles, while using positive affirmations to help clear the "short-circuit" -- the emotional block -- from your body's bioenergy system.
Again, depression is often a serious, even life threatening, condition, and I do not recommend that you self-treat. Instead, find a health care practitioner who can guide you through natural treatment options, providing both emotional and physical support, so you can heal at the deepest level.