What Is Full Spectrum Light Therapy?

By: Stephanie Kirby

Updated February 15, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

You may have heard of full-spectrum light therapy before and wondered if it's something that can help you. After all, there are so many different types of Mental Health treatments and alternative treatments that are available. So, how do you know which one is the right one for you? When it comes to Mental Health, full spectrum light therapy is generally used to treat people that are suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) but can help those with other forms of depression as well.

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How Does Full Spectrum Light Therapy Work?

When people are undergoing full spectrum light therapy, they have a light therapy box that they use in their treatment. This is simply a box that puts out a light that a person stands or sits in front of. That's the simplest explanation for it.

The light is supposed to be replicating the natural sunlight that we benefit from as humans. So, light therapy is as simple as sitting in front of the light. You can have your eyes open but should not look directly at the light, or you can close your eyes. This is not something that typically just works in an instant. But, if you are consistent with it for the right amount of time, you can notice an improvement to your depression symptoms and mental health.

Three separate components come into play when doing light therapy. The first is the light intensity. This is known as lux, and it indicates the amount of light that you are receiving during your therapy sessions. The standard to use for light therapy for SAD (seasonal affective disorder), is a 10,000 lux light when you are between 16 and 24 inches away from it. However, it is important that you talk to your doctor first before buying a light. You'll want to ask them exactly what they want you to look for in a light.

The other things that will impact the effectiveness of your light therapy session are the duration and the timing. These are also things that you're going to want to talk to your doctor or therapist about. Many people feel that it benefits them to do light therapy first thing in the morning. However, this is something that your therapist can help you determine in your situation. The duration of your therapy sessions depends on the type of light that you have purchased. The higher or lower the lux is, it will impact the amount of time that you should be in front of it.

When Did Light Therapy Become Popular?

The answer to this question depends on what exactly you're looking for. People have believed in the power of sunlight for healing for centuries. Natural light has been used as a medical treatment for as long as people can document. However, light therapy boxes didn't start to become popular until the 1990s. Then, the number of success stories that continue to come out of the use of light therapy have continued to keep it in the spotlight.

Who Needs Light Therapy?

Light therapy can be used to treat several different diseases and disorders, but for this article, we're going to stick with mental health. The people who can benefit the most from light therapy are people who struggle with depression, especially seasonal affective disorder. However, it can also be used for other types of depression and also to help people with circadian rhythm sleep disorders or those who travel frequently and experience jet lag.

Note that some studies show that blue light can also help you sleep better. Blue light from screens can suppress melatonin but research has shown that exposure to blue light during the day can improve alertness.

What Are The Symptoms Of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The symptoms of SAD are the same as that of other forms of depression. The main differentiator is that it is depression that occurs only during certain times of the year. For the majority of people, this will be during the winter (often referred to as the winter blues), but there are also people who experience it during a different season.

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This means that the symptoms of depression start around the same time every year and leave around the same time every year. It works like it's a cycle and it's something that you're able almost to predict.

Symptoms of depression include feeling sad or down, but it can also include feeling angry and more irritable. You may experience a change in your sleeping pattern and a change in your desire to eat. Some people sleep more and other sleep last. Some people eat more, and others eat less. Many people experiencing depression also start to withdraw from friends and family and the things that they enjoy in life. It can almost make them want to shut down.

Why Can't We Just Go Outside?

You may be wondering if full spectrum light therapy is really just giving people artificial sunlight, why can't we just go outside to take in actual sunlight. The best light is natural sunlight. However, in this day and age, there are money people that experience a shortage of the natural sunlight that they need. This could be people who work long hours and find themselves in the office when it's dark in the morning and not leaving until it's dark at night or people that don't live where they can get enough light during the day.

Light therapy also comes into play in with seasonal affective disorder in states that experience less sunlight during the winter months. Many people are affected by SAD between fall and early spring. This is because many states have more cloudy days in the winter and when you combine that with shorter daylight hours, it can make for a depressing setting.

So, even if people can go outside throughout the day, they may not be able to get the amount of natural sunlight that they need to see the full benefit. Light therapy boxes can help.

How To Get A SAD Light Therapy Box?

If a light therapy box is something that sounds like it could help with symptoms that you're experiencing with your Mental Health, the good news is it’s easy to get one. You can buy them online or in stores without having any type of a prescription. However, you're still going to want to talk to a doctor or therapist before getting one.

There are some adverse side effects that you can experience if you do not use a light therapy box correctly. There are also some people that shouldn't use therapy boxes. So, if you run out and buy one of the light boxes without talking to a doctor first, you could see a decline in your health instead of the benefits that you were looking for.

Light therapy boxes can range in price from $20 to thousands of dollars. This is another reason why you want to talk to a professional before running out and buying one. As you've probably heard before, "you get what you pay for." Buying the cheapest box may not be the best option for your mental health challenges. So, always talk to you a professional before making a decision or spending any money on a light and to determine the best light for your condition.

And, the final thing that you're going to want to consider when purchasing a light therapy box is UV rays. There are many boxes available on the market that are UV free. This is the type of light that you're going to want to look for. The Verilux HappyLight, for example, mimics sunlight without UV rays, as does the Carex Day-Light Classic. The Carex Day-Light Classic has two light mode settings, allow you to use it as a desk lamp when it’s not being used as a therapy light. Some therapy lamps – such as the Verilux HappyLight – come with a satisfaction guarantee.

If this all sounds a bit overwhelming, you may also find comparison guides helpful in making your selection. News outlets including The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Good Housekeeping, among others, walk through the differences across makes and models offered by leading manufacturers.

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What Should I do If I think Light Therapy Would Work For Me?

If you think that light therapy is there the right option for you, it's time to make an appointment to talk with a therapist. You will want to look for one that specializes in or is at least experienced in light therapy. This is an alternate form of mental health treatment that not all therapists will do. That means, before making an appointment you want to make sure that you’re meeting with a therapist that is in line with your desires.

During your initial therapy session, you can talk to the therapist about types of treatment that are available and tell them why you would like to try light therapy. They will also give you their opinion on what treatment path will be right for you. For some people, light therapy will be the only form of treatment that they need. However, there are others they'll also benefit from other forms, such as psychotherapy along with light therapy sessions.

Does Full Spectrum Light Therapy Work?

If you think that light therapy sounds too good to be true, you're not alone. Many people are suspicious that light therapy could help out with their depression. It's important that you remember that light therapy is not going to be the right option for everyone. It is not a cure-all for depression. However, some people experience amazing results in improving their mental health and levels of depression through full spectrum light therapy.

If you are struggling with your mental health because of seasonal affective disorder or the winter blues, light therapy could be the right option for you. However, don't rule out traditional forms of therapy like those offered when you see a therapist in person, or through online therapy. It's often a combination of treatment that will provide the best benefit for people struggling with mental health challenges such as depression.


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