Light therapy may be a safe and effective treatment option for people with mild to moderate insomnia symptoms.

Insomnia is a type of sleep disturbance affecting a person’s ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get a quality night’s sleep.

Treatments for insomnia often involve lifestyle modifications. Light therapy is a newer, potentially helpful therapy for insomnia and other sleep disturbances.

This article reviews how light therapy may help with insomnia, other effects of light therapy, possible side effects, and more.

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Light therapy involves exposing a person to artificial light for a set period of time. Light therapy may occur in a clinical setting or at home.

During a light therapy session, a person sits or stands near a lamp or light box. The device typically mimics natural sunlight.

Commercially available units emit between 2,500 and 10,000 lumens per square meter (lux), a measure of light brightness. A person should work with a doctor to determine the proper settings, including the length of sessions and the best time of day to use the therapy.

A 2016 systematic review of light therapy for insomnia and sleep disorders noted mixed results from 53 studies. Additionally, the authors noted possible study biases. They did conclude that it may help with circadian rhythm and some insomnia symptoms, but the effects were mild to moderate at best.

Light therapy for insomnia and other sleep disorders is promising, with many people accepting it as a noninvasive treatment option. Still, experts do not yet fully accept it as a mainstay therapy.

Light therapy has a variety of potential uses:

  • Light therapy has shown promising results in treating major depressive disorder (MDD) with seasonal patterns.
  • Phototherapy, or light therapy, is a first-line, cost-effective option for treating moderate to severe psoriasis.
  • Bright light therapy was effective and well tolerated in treating nonseasonal MDD in adults.
  • Research suggests that light therapy is a viable treatment for early poststroke insomnia in people with mild to moderate strokes. In addition, bright light therapy is effective for:
    • relieving daytime sleepiness
    • treating fatigue
    • treating depression
    • improving quality of life in people with poststroke insomnia

A 2019 study into how light therapy works for major depressive disorder (MDD) with seasonal patterns noted the following possible benefits, which can aid those with depression and also positively affect sleep:

  • It helps create stable and consistent sleep patterns.
  • It aids the circadian rhythm.
  • It helps balance the activation of serotonin in the brain.
  • It improves alertness during the day.

A person should consider discussing light therapy with a doctor before starting. Some individuals may not be good candidates for light therapy, including:

Further, an ophthalmologist should supervise people with glaucoma, cataracts, or retinopathy during their light therapy treatment.

Possible side effects of light therapy can include:

  • agitation
  • headaches
  • irritability
  • blurry vision
  • problems with sleeping
  • fatigue
  • eyestrain

A person can purchase a light box for home use. However, a person should discuss their intended use with a doctor before using. Questions for a doctor could relate to:

  • best time to use the device
  • session length
  • number of sessions they recommend
  • possible precautions, such as what medications may worsen any side effects

Generally, a phototherapy session at home involves sitting or standing in front of the light. Some studies suggest that once-daily sessions in the early morning for half an hour using 10,000-lux lights is an effective dosage for insomnia.

Below are some frequently asked questions about light therapy.

Can light therapy cure insomnia?

Light therapy cannot cure insomnia, but it may help lessen the severity of symptoms. A person may need additional therapy, particularly if they have severe symptoms.

What type of light therapy is best?

Some studies suggest that using a light box with 10,000 lux for 30 minutes in the early morning works for insomnia. A person should discuss light therapy with a doctor before starting to help ensure they get the best results.

How long does it take to work?

Some studies showed that light therapy for insomnia might start working within 1–2 weeks. A person may need more or less time and additional therapies to help with severe symptoms.

What other therapies are available for insomnia?

The following are other therapies:

Doctors may also prescribe OTC or other prescription medications to help with insomnia.

Read more about insomnia treatments.

Light therapy may help with insomnia and other sleep disturbances. However, it may work best for cases of mild to moderate insomnia.

People interested may find the best success using a 10,000-lux light once per day in the morning for about 30 minutes. They may need to supplement the treatment with medications or other therapies to help with insomnia or other sleep-related symptoms.

Before starting light therapy, a person should discuss their plans with a doctor. They can help determine whether a person is a good candidate and at low risk for side effects. In general, the therapy is safe, but it can cause some problems for people with preexisting conditions or those who take certain medications.