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What Is Light Box Therapy?

Phototherapy Can Treat Circadian Rhythm Problems, SAD

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Updated November 18, 2013

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What Is Light Box Therapy?

A man uses a light box to treat his sleep disorder.

Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

If you suffer from one of the circadian rhythm disorders, including seasonal affective disorder (SAD), you may wonder: What is light box therapy? This unique treatment is sometimes called phototherapy and may be just what you need to sleep better and feel more alert during the day.

What Is a Light Box?

The light box is a specially-designed fixture that produces a soft white light that is used for bright light exposure therapy. The light box generates a standard wavelength and amount of light. The light provided is toward the red end of the color spectrum. It should have an intensity of approximately 10,000 lux to be effective.

Sleep Disorders Treated with Light Box Therapy

Many problems can occur when our biological clock becomes misaligned to the natural day-night cycle. This circadian rhythm is what promotes sleep at night and alertness during the day. If this is disrupted, we may have insomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness. Various disorders can disrupt this alignment and may be effectively treated with light box therapy, including:

In addition, seasonal changes in the day length may also cause difficulties with our mood. With shorter days and longer nights, starting one’s day before natural light begins may lead to symptoms of winter depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Exposure to bright light in the morning may help to reset our biological clocks, but without it we may feel prolonged sleepiness.

Symptoms Responsive to Light Box Therapy

There are certain symptoms that might be expected to be more responsive to light box therapy. These symptoms include:

  • Insomnia
  • Excessive morning sleepiness or hypersomnia
  • Winter or seasonal depression
  • Lethargy

If you feel that you have symptoms or a condition that might be responsive to light box phototherapy, you may wish to consult with your physician before selecting a light box.

Sources:

American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "International classification of sleep disorders: Diagnostic and coding manual." 2nd ed. 2005.

American Psychiatric Association. "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders." 4th ed. American Psychiatric Association, Washington DC, 2000.

Chesson, AJ, et al. "Practice parameters for the use of light therapy in the treatment of sleep disorders." Standards of Practice Committee, American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Sleep. 1999; 22:641.

Eagles, JM. "Seasonal affective disorder." Br J Psychiatry. 2003; 182:174.

Eastman, CI et al. "Bright light treatment of winter depression: a placebo-controlled trial." Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1998; 55:883.

Golden, RN et al. "The efficacy of light therapy in the treatment of mood disorders: a review and meta-analysis of the evidence." Am J Psychiatry. 2005; 162:656.

Partonen, T., et al. "Seasonal affective disorder." Lancet 1998; 352:1369.

Terman M et al. "A controlled trial of timed bright light and negative air ionization for treatment of winter depression." Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1998; 55-875.

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