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Light Therapy for Depression in Pregnancy

by Jane Wangersky | December 16th, 2013 | Pregnancy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWinter, for many, brings more vulnerability not only to colds and flu, but to depression. Pregnant women, with their hormonal changes, are especially prone to it. Though last winter I questioned the wisdom of a study that said anti-depressants during pregnancy didn’t “result in better outcomes” than placebos, it’s completely understandable if a woman expecting a baby decides she’d rather treat depression without drugs. In fact, the first time I sought treatment for depression was during my first pregnancy, and I stuck to my resolution to do it with counseling alone.

Since then, another option has developed: Light therapy, which one research team calls “a simple, cost-effective antidepressant modality with minimal side effects for the mother and no known risk for the unborn child”. This has been used for several years to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder. A light therapy box is used to simulate bright outdoor daylight for the patient. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Light therapy is thought to affect brain chemicals linked to mood, easing SAD symptoms. Using a light therapy box may also help with other types of depression, sleep disorders and other conditions.”

A study in Switzerland a few years ago tends to bear this out. Pregnant women diagnosed with a major depressive disorder were given either a light therapy box or a placebo version and asked to sit in front of it for an hour every morning for five weeks. Their depression was evaluated by interview and rated every week. The women with the real light therapy boxes were found to improve significantly more.

Light therapy boxes are for sale online and even at your local drugstore. One company promotes its product by saying it’s “ideal for pregnant women”. However, being able to buy a light therapy box over the counter doesn’t mean you should. At about $200 each, they’re a fair sized investment. There are also those side effects, which, according to, include possibly being pushed too far in the other direction, into a manic state. You may also find the light interferes with your hormones, which are already in turmoil. So this is something else you need to ask your doctor about.

All that said — if you’re pregnant and depressed, and either not on medication or on medication that’s not working, it’s worth looking into light therapy with your doctor. It could be the drug-free way to turn your mood around.

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