light therapy winter depression

Do you suffer from winter depression? Have you heard of light boxes and wondered if light therapy can help? If so, take a look below to find out more.

Winter depression (sometimes referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder) affects many people, especially those living in the northern hemisphere.  Winter brings shorter days, changes in light, and poorer weather which in turn means we spend more time indoors.  This combination of factors can result in dramatic effects on your circadian rhythms. Light therapy is one way of treating winter depression. But how does it help? First, let’s look briefly at what light therapy is.

Winter Depression – Can Light Therapy Help?

Light Therapy

  • Light therapy is also known as bright light therapy or phototherapy.
  • During light therapy, you sit in front of a device called a light therapy box for about 15-30 minutes, usually in the morning.
  • Light therapy is generally safe. Any side effects are usually mild and short lasting. Negative effects can be managed by reducing treatment time, sitting farther from your light box, taking breaks during sessions or changing the time of day you use light therapy. Talk to your doctor for advice if you experience side effects.

Before using light therapy, talk to you doctor or another health professional especially if:

  • You suffer from a condition that makes your skin especially sensitive to light, such as systemic lupus erythematosus
  • You are taking medications that increase your sensitivity to sunlight, such as certain antibiotics, anti-inflammatories or St. John’s Wort
  • You suffer from an eye condition that makes your eyes susceptible to light damage, for example, macular degeneration.


How Light Therapy Helps Winter Depression

  • The light therapy box emits bright light that mimics natural daylight.
  • In the presence of simulated daylight/sunshine, receptors in the eyes trigger the release of serotonin in the brain which leads to feelings of well-being, increased energy levels, and natural sleep patterns.
  • In 2005, members of the Department of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina, conducted an analysis of randomized, controlled trials to assess the evidence for the efficacy of light therapy in treating mood disorders. The study concluded that light therapy is effective as a first-line treatment for both seasonal and non-seasonal depression. The authors also concluded that light therapy is a viable alternative to antidepressant drugs or can be used alongside them.
  • Light therapy can start to improve symptoms within a few days. If you have severe depression, it may take two or more weeks before you feel the benefit.

For light therapy to be most effective, you need to make sure that you follow three key steps:


  1. Intensity

To treat winter depression, it’s recommended you use a 10,000-lux light box at a distance of about 16 to 24 inches (41 to 61 centimeters) from your face.  Lux is a measure of the amount of light you receive.

  1. Duration

Use the light box daily across the winter months. If you use a 10,000-lux light box, light therapy sessions usually last 20 to 30 minutes while a lower-intensity light box may require longer sessions. It is important to check the manufacturer’s guidelines and follow your doctor’s instructions.

  1. Timing
  • Light therapy is most effective when you do it early in the morning when you first get up. This gives you a boost to get you through the day and you will be able to relax in the evening. It follows a more natural circadian pattern. Some people find using the light box to be more effective at other times of the day. Your doctor can help you determine the light therapy schedule that will work best for you.
  • Stick to a daily routine of light therapy sessions. This helps ensure that any improvements are maintained over time. If you interrupt light therapy during the winter months or stop too soon in the spring, your symptoms may return.


If you suffer from winter depression, can light therapy help?  Well, light therapy won’t cure your winter depression but research shows it can ease the symptoms. It isn’t effective for everyone but you can take steps to help get the most out of your light therapy and maximize its benefits. Consult your doctor to see if light therapy is for you.