Brightening Lives with Light

Light therapy is proving to be an effective treatment for bipolar depression and other mood disorders

Michele Twyman of Penn Hills always dreaded the approach of winter and the holidays. As the days shortened, she grew increasingly tired, sleepy, and depressed. All she wanted to do was crawl into bed — and stay there.

“I didn’t enjoy anything — from decorating to shopping. I never felt like celebrating,” says Ms. Twyman, who has a bipolar disorder and has battled depression for more than 30 years.

But last Christmas was different. For the first time in years, she decorated, shopped, and made wreaths and centerpieces. “I enjoy the holidays again. I realize now how much I missed being happy about life’s little things,” she says.

New Treatment Shows Bright Promise

Ms. Twyman credits her new outlook to an artificial light box provided by Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC) of UPMC. Every afternoon, she sits in bright light for about a half hour while reading or planning appointments and activities. It took just a few weeks to feel the effects. She now wakes up feeling more rested and relaxed. She’s also better able to care for her 95-year-old father.

“There are few effective treatments for bipolar depression. That’s why we’re exploring novel approaches such as light therapy,” says Dorothy Sit, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, and a researcher at WPIC who is leading an ongoing study in the use of light therapy for treatment of bipolar depression.

“Most patients feel better within two weeks of starting it, and continue to improve for up to eight weeks.”

According to Dr. Sit, treatment is inexpensive and effective. Patients with seasonal depression require 30 to 60 minutes of daily light therapy while patients with non-seasonal depression need 45 to 60 minutes.

People with bipolar depression are especially sensitive to changes in outdoor ambient light and the seasons, she explains. The onset of fall and winter can trigger symptoms similar to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), including fatigue, sluggishness, daytime sleepiness, carb cravings, loss of interest, and inability to experience pleasure. Individuals with bipolar depression also may have suicidal thoughts.

How and Why it Works

Light therapy replaces lost sunlight exposure and resets the body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythms — important for everyone’s general health, mood, and thinking. That’s why light therapy also can help patients with jet lag, shift workers, and people with sleep disorders.

While light therapy is generally safe, patients with bipolar depression also must be on a mood stabilizer or they’ll be at risk for manic episodes, says Dr. Sit. Other possible side effects include headaches, eyestrain, irritation, agitation, and insomnia. These symptoms normally disappear following adjustments in the time and length of treatment.

To participate in the study, call 1-800-436-2461. For information on light boxes, visit the Center for Environmental Therapeutics website.

Light Therapy Tips

  • Check with your doctor or mental health professional to see if light therapy is a good option for you.
  • Follow your doctor’s advice concerning any special precautions you need to take.
  • Use light therapy only with guidance from your doctor or mental health provider to minimize possible side effects and maximize benefits.

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