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Kevlar for the Mind: Shining real light on depression

March 19, 2016 (Photo Credit: Thinkstock/Staff)

Q. My doctor has prescribed "light therapy" for my depression. Is this a real treatment and does it work? 

A. There are a variety of treatments for depression. The most common are talk therapy and medication. However, for many sufferers, counseling and drugs just don't do the trick. Some have only a partial response whereas others see no benefit.

Recognizing the limitations of standard depression treatments, researchers have focused their efforts on less mainstream approaches. A few examples include meditation, yoga and equine therapy. Another is light therapy. 

Light therapy is exposure to a fluorescent light for a designated amount of time. The manufactured light mimics natural outdoor light. It's usually done 30 minutes after awakening, but some people use it throughout the day while at work or home. It's believed that light influences brain chemicals, which in turn, improves mood. 

Light therapy has been used successfully for years to treat seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a type of depression that's caused by changes in the seasons. It usually begins around the same time every year, which is the fall. Symptoms of low energy, sadness and mood swings continue throughout the winter months. Symptoms generally dissipate in the spring or early summer.

The impact of light on other types of depression has been less known ... until now. A recent study published in the main psychiatry journal of the American Medical Association reveals that light therapy is helpful in treating major depressive disorder, one of the most common and severe forms of depression. 

Researchers compared fluorescent light therapy to antidepressant medication by itself, the combination of light therapy and antidepressant medication, and a placebo. Results were both promising and surprising.

Both light therapy and the combination of light therapy and medication were more effective than a placebo. This means more people got better from using lights and lights and meds together compared to no treatment. Surprisingly, medication was not more effective than a placebo. This is concerning considering antidepressant medications are widely used for depression in service members and veterans and can cause a number of troubling side effects. 

As researchers continue to explore alternative treatments for depression, the use of light therapy should be front and center of their efforts. Until now little was known about the benefits of using lights to treat nonseasonal depression. Fortunately, this thorough and well-done research study sheds light on this important topic. 

Bret A. Moore, Psy.D., is a board-certified clinical psychologist who served two tours in Iraq. Email him at kevlarforthemind@militarytimes.com. This column is for informational purposes only and is not intended to convey specific psychological or medical guidance.

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