Light Therapy

Light therapy is one way to help treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression associated with the lack of natural light during the winter months. Student Wellness and University Counseling Service offer students the ability to check out light boxes to try for free for one month.

During light therapy, you sit near a device called a light therapy box. The box gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. Light therapy is thought to possibly affect brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, easing symptoms of SAD.

Check out procedure

  • Light box rental is available for free on a first come, first served basis for any registered University of Iowa student.
  • You can check out a light box at four locations on campus during office hours:
    • Student Wellness in Westlawn
    • Student Wellness at CRWC (in the Wellness Services Suite) 
    • University Counseling Service in Westlawn
    • University Counseling Service in UCC
    • When checking out you’ll fill out a loan agreement and informed consent form.
    • You can check out a light box for up to one month.
    • You are responsible for returning the light box to the same location you checked it out from.

To be effective, light from the light box must enter your eyes directly.  You cannot get the same effect merely by exposing your skin to the light. Sleeping with the light box on will not be effective. During light therapy sessions, you can still read, use a computer, write, talk on the phone, or eat.

For best results...

  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for using the light box.
  • Light therapy requires time and consistency. Response usually starts in a few days, and by two weeks the symptoms should be improving.
  • It is best to utilize the lamps daily for approximately 20 – 30 minutes. If this is not possible, a regular routine schedule is best (e.g.  every other day).
  • The morning, as soon as possible after waking, is the optimal time for light therapy.
  • During light therapy, you should keep to a regular sleep schedule (going to sleep and waking up at regular times, for example, 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.).
  • The light should be projected toward the eyes at an angle to minimize aversive visual glare.
  • The typical recommendation is to sit approximately 6 to 24 inches from the light box. 
  • Any student who is currently taking medication that can cause photosensitivity (common examples include tetracycline, erythromycin) should only use the light box with extreme caution.

Risks

Light therapy is generally safe and does not require a prescription to use. If side effects occur, they're usually mild and short lasting. Some people can experience mild headaches, nausea, dizziness, or eye strain when using the light box. These symptoms usually occur at the beginning of treatment, and get better in a few days. Otherwise, they can be relieved by reducing the daily exposure time, or by sitting slightly farther away from the lights.

Occasionally, people report feeling irritable, or euphoric, or being “too high” when using light therapy. People with bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness) should consult with a therapist or medical provider before using light therapy.

While your eyes must be open, do not look directly at the light box. There are no reported harmful effects on the eyes with light therapy as recommended, but the long-term effects have not yet been studied. If you have eye problems (e.g., retinal disease, cataracts, or diabetes), or worries about eye damage, please see your medical provider.

Light therapy is only one means to treat depression brought upon by seasonal affective disorder. Please consult a mental health professional or other healthcare provider if you have concerns.

Additional notes

Please email Patrick Rossmann with any questions.

Thank you to the University of Iowa Student Government for providing funding for the light boxes.