Light Therapy for Bipolar Disorder

The Pluses and Minuses of This Unconventional Therapy

woman doing a light therapy session
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Phototherapy, also known as light therapy and light box therapy, is the use of light to treat disorders. It has been classically used to treat both seasonal and non-seasonal depression and may also be effective for people with bipolar disorder

Let's learn more about light therapy in bipolar disorder, including how it works, dosing, and potential side effects. 

Is Light Therapy Effective for My Bipolar Symptoms?

Scientific data suggests that patients with bipolar depression do seem to respond well to light therapy.


How Does Light Therapy Work?

Light therapy generally involves full-spectrum bright light exposure directly onto the eyes using a light source, such as a light box or a light visor. With a light box, the patient sits in front of the light while a visor allows for more mobility.

Light therapy is used to treat the depressive episodes of bipolar disorder. Therefore, it's important that a person has anti-manic coverage while undergoing light therapy. A person with bipolar disorder should not undergo light therapy without first discussing carefully with their physician. 

Light Therapy Dosing

Whether light therapy is beneficial depends on proper dosing. The dose is determined by the intensity of the light, the distance a person is from the light box, and the duration of light exposure. 

The majority of light sources provide 10,000 lux. For seasonal affective disorder, the suggested starting dose is 10,000 lux of morning light for 30 minutes daily.

For people with bipolar disorder, several different doses have been used in studies including:

  • 2,000 lux morning light for 2 hours daily
  • 400 lux for 2 hour daily
  • 10,000 lux for 45 to 60 min twice daily
  • 7,000 lux for 45 to 60 min

It's interesting to note that people with rapid cycling bipolar disorder may respond better to midday light, as compared to morning or evening light.


 What Other Psychiatric Illnesses is Light Therapy Used For?

Light therapy has also been used to treat sleep disturbances, schizoaffective disorder, and premenstrual syndrome.

What are the Potential Advantages and Disadvantages of Light Therapy?

The advantages of light therapy include the fact that it is rather non-invasive with relatively few and minor side effects. Additionally, a significant number of people respond very quickly to this treatment.

The disadvantages of light therapy comprise the daily commitment of time and investment in the equipment. Some health care providers have  light boxes available in their offices, but this necessitates a daily visit to the doctor. There are also companies that rent the equipment. However, insurance does not always cover the expenses associated with this type of treatment. Also, relapse of symptoms may occur after cessation of treatment.

What are the Potential Side Effects of Light Therapy?

Potential side effects of light therapy include eye-strain, headaches, agitation, and insomnia.

Insomnia may be reduced by scheduling the sessions in the morning. 

 Also, the potential side effects may be lessened by using a variation known as dawn simulation, in which the intensity of the light is increased slowly, as if the sun were rising.

In some cases, symptoms of mania appeared to be initiated by this therapy. In this case, light therapy may need to be temporarily discontinued, or the dose may need to be reduced. 

In very rare cases, some women reported menstrual irregularities during treatment.

What Should I Do?

It's important to note that light therapy is a medical treatment. Before undertaking this type of therapy, be sure to discuss it with your health care provider to make sure it's right and safe for you.


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Pjrek, E et al. Menstrual disturbances a rare side-effect of bright-light therapy. Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 2004 Jun;7(2):239-40. 

Sato, Toru. (1997). Seasonal affective disorder and phototherapy: A critical review. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 28, 164-169.

Sit D, Wisner KL, Hanusa BH, Stull S, & Terman M. Light therapy for bipolar disorder: a case series in women. Bipolar Disord. 2007 Dec;9(8):918-27.

Steiner, M. & Born, L. (2000). Advances in the diagnosis and treatment of premenstrual dysphoria. In: Managing depressive disorders by Katharine J. Palmer and Chung Kwai. Hong Kong: Adis International Publications, 139-57.



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