Photobiomodulation for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Colin Cook

This time of year in New England can be especially difficult for triathletes. Less daylight means less time for safe road workouts. And when it comes to open water swimming, forget about it. Then, for some of us, there’s the notorious winter blues. Is photobiomodulation (PBM) helpful for seasonal affective disorder (SAD)? I think it can be.


You don’t have to be a triathlete to get the winter blues. According to Psychology Today, about 10 million Americans suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a depression that takes hold in winter. As many as 60 million may suffer from a milder form, a persistent sadness and apathy that falls short of clinical depression. Symptoms of SAD are highly variable, and can include heightened sensitivity to social rejection, feelings of hopelessness and sadness, fatigue, heavy-feeling limbs, weight gain, difficulty concentrating, and even suicidal thoughts.

A Light Box Helps

SAD can be treated, however, and the most popular treatment is a light box: the patient sits in front of a broad-spectrum light source for 30 or 60 minutes a day. This treatment is far safer and more effective than, say, medication.


If you want to raise your spirits with artificial light this winter, you can’t just use your desk lamp. A light box gives off light that is about 20 times stronger than normal indoor lighting. Consult your doctor before trying it, but if you use one, schedule it for the morning, and don’t stare at the light. Just “bathe” in it.

Very Little Research on PBM and SAD

There is a difference between a light box and a PBM device. But I would think that regular PBM sessions, which you might be having for their manifold other benefits, would eliminate the need for a light box. Even in the absence of clinical research, the American Society for Laser Medicine & Surgery agrees with me. That’s not surprising. More than one of our PBM users have reported feeling mood elevation as a result of a session.


Furthermore, a 2009 study reported in Behavioral and Brain Functions tested a form of PBM against major depression and anxiety. The researchers worked with 10 patients suffering from depression or anxiety. Assuming that depression happens in the frontal lobe, the researchers applied PBM to one side of the forehead and placebo light to the other. It wasn’t clear to me from the writeup whether their lateralization strategy proved anything. But two weeks after the treatment, 6 of the 10 patients scored significantly better on objective assessments of depression and anxiety.

Photobiomodulation for Seasonal Affective Disorder

We don’t provide treatments at Peak Recovery & Health Center, but we can offer you the opportunity to experience photobiomodulation. The study cited above involved PBM applied to the forehead. Think what you could do to your winter blues by applying it to your whole body with our light bed. If you decide to try it, take a tip from light box users and book a session for the morning rather than afternoon or evening.


Book a PBM session at Peak Recovery & Health Center today.