Light Therapy For Bipolar Depression?

By Victoria Kim 11/29/17

A new study examined whether light therapy could provide relief for people with bipolar disorder.

woman using light therapy

Can light therapy help relieve depression from bipolar disorder? A new study suggests that it could provide some relief.

Bipolar disorder is characterized by unusual shifts in mood, changes in mood, energy and activity levels, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Moods can fluctuate from manic (high energy) to depressive (sad and down). 

Bipolar depression is regarded as “one of the most difficult types of depression to treat,” says Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). It’s estimated that about 3% of American adults live with bipolar disorder.

Light therapy is normally used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that typically emerges in colder seasons. The treatment involves sitting in front of a light box that emits a daily “dose” of bright light. The idea is that people who are affected by SAD feel down from the lack of exposure to sunlight during winter’s short days and long nights.

Researchers at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University tested the effects of light therapy on 46 patients with “at least moderate bipolar depression,” according to NPR.

Half of the patients was exposed to bright light therapy, while the other half (the placebo group) was exposed to a dim red light. Patients continued taking their prescribed medication during the four- to six-week trial.

The results have been promising, says psychiatrist Dorothy Sit, the lead author of the study. Among the patients exposed to the bright light, 68% “achieved remission of depression.” And among the patients in the placebo group, 22% achieved remission.

The study’s findings are interesting but “highly preliminary,” a pioneer of SAD light therapy noted.

And though it sounds simple, Sit and her colleagues warn that individuals with bipolar disorder should only try light therapy with the help of a medical professional. Earlier tests have shown that light therapy early in the morning could trigger a manic phase in people with bipolar disorder. In this new study, light therapy was administered in the middle of the day, between noon and 2:30 pm.

This could help people in recovery who are living with bipolar disorder, who have not found relief in prescription medication (mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, antidepressants, or anti-anxiety medication), or psychotherapy.

“They returned to work, they were able to look after things at home, they were functioning back to their normal selves again,” Sit observed in the bipolar disorder patients who received the bright light therapy.

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