By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 31 August 2008)
Although light therapy is most commonly used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.), recent studies indicate that it may also be beneficial for treating Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), particularly for those whose symptoms worsen during the darker winter months. Light therapy has been effective even for some adults with ADHD who are not depressed and do not suffer from S.A.D.
ADHD and Seasonal Affective Disorder
Some of those with ADHD are also prone to other conditions, including S.A.D., which occurs significantly more often among people with ADHD than in the general population (Levitan et al., 1999). The link with S.A.D. suggests that these two conditions may be at least partly attributable to similar biochemical mechanisms.
Some people with ADHD may also have a circadian rhythm phase delay, which makes it difficult for them to get to bed at a reasonable hour at night or get up early in the morning. In addition to being an effective treatment for S.A.D., light therapy has also been used to treat sleep problems resulting from circadian rhythm abnormalities.
ADHD Symptom Relief
In a recent study conducted by Rybak et al. (2006) during the winter months, adults with ADHD who were treated with light therapy saw significant reductions in many ADHD symptoms, including:
- Impulsive response to stimuli
- Difficulty in sustaining efforts
Light therapy, which can be administered via a light box or using a smaller portable “light book,” involves exposing the person to 10,000 lux light for approximately 30 minutes per day, though exposure times can be increased or decreased as required because individual responsiveness varies. Light therapy is ideally implemented at the time of day when the person usually feels tired or sluggish, though it shouldn’t be done too late at night as this may cause insomnia.
Light Therapy Safety
Light therapy is relatively safe for most people. Common mild side effects are eye irritation, headache, irritability, or jitteriness, but these often go away on their own or can be eliminated by sitting further away from the light box or shortening the duration of exposure. Less commonly, mania or hypomania may be triggered in susceptible individuals. Adverse reactions may also occur in those who are taking photosensitizing herbs or medications, or who suffer from certain skin or retinal conditions. Due to the possibility of side effects as a result of such interactions, consulting with a doctor is recommended before beginning light therapy.
Making a light box is inadvisable as home-made devices are often unsafe or ineffective because they don’t emit the correct amount of light. Light boxes are available commercially for anywhere from $150 to $500, depending on the design and size. It’s important to choose a light box that screens out ultraviolet (UV) rays, as these increase the risk of skin cancer and aren’t necessary for the treatment to be effective.
While light therapy shows some promise for treating ADHD in certain individuals, it should be considered a complementary therapy. Ideally, conventional therapy would be implemented year-round and light therapy used as an adjunct treatment during the darker months of fall and winter.
For more ADHD articles, see the main ADHD page.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. Those who have mental or physical health concerns should consult a medical professional.
- Levitan, R.D.; Jain, U.R.; & Katzman, M.A. (1999). “Seasonal Affective Symptoms in Adults with Residual Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” Comprensive Psychiatry, 40(4), 261-267.
- Mood Disorders Association of British Columbia. (26 February 2007). “Dark Days of Seasonal Disorder: SAD Has Been Recognized Since the 1980s, but Medical Experts Still Haven’t Figured Out the Cause.” The Vancouver Sun.
- Rybak, Y.E.; McNeely, H.D.; Mackenzie, B.E.; Jain, U.R.; & Levitan, R.D. (2006). “An Open Trial of Light Therapy in Adult Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 67(10), 1527-1535.
- University of Washington Counseling Center. (n.d.). “Light Therapy for S.A.D.” Counseling.uw.edu.