Light Therapy More Effective Than Prozac in Patients With Major Depression

The use of light therapy beyond seasonal affective disorder

By Michael T. Murray, ND, and Karolyn A. Gazella

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Lam RW, Levitt AJ, Levitan RD, et al. Efficacy of bright light treatment, fluoxetine, and the combination in patients with nonseasonal major depressive disorder: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2016;73(1):56-63. 


Randomized, double-blind, placebo- and sham-controlled trial


This trial included 122 participants aged 19 to 60 years who were diagnosed with nonseasonal major depressive disorder. The duration of the current major depressive disorder episode ranged from 45 to 90 weeks. Participants came from outpatient psychiatry clinics in academic centers. Data was collected from October 2009 to March 2014.


Participants were randomly assigned to receive 30 minutes per day of full-spectrum light therapy plus a placebo; 30 minutes of full-spectrum light therapy plus fluoxetine (Prozac, 20 mg/d); fluoxetine (20 mg/day) without light therapy; or placebo (inactive light therapy plus placebo pill).

Outcomes Measurement

The Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS) was taken at baseline and at the end of the 8-week trial. Remission was also used as a secondary outcome. 

Key Findings

At the end of the 8-week trial, mean changes in MADRS scores from baseline were significantly greater in those who received the full-spectrum light therapy compared to fluoxetine. Of the patients receiving the light therapy, 43.8% went into remission compared to 19.4% of the patients who were taking fluoxetine alone. There was a 58.6% remission rate in the patients who received both the light therapy and the fluoxetine.

Practice Implications

For years, full-spectrum light has been used as an effective treatment for seasonal affective disorder.1,2 This recent clinical trial adds to the growing body of evidence indicating that full-spectrum light can also be efficacious in nonseasonal forms of depression. These results are consistent with previous studies. A 2005 meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials consistently found a significant reduction in depression symptom severity in both seasonal and nonseasonal disorders.3 In a 2013 randomized controlled trial, Baxendale et al found that bright light therapy significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression in epileptic patients.4 Research also demonstrates that bright light therapy is safe despite previous reports of adverse effects.5 In rare cases, eye strain and blurred vision can occur.
Light boxes that are similar to those used in this clinical trial are easily available at a cost of $69 to $199. An alternative to light boxes is getting outdoors in the sunlight for 30 minutes a day. Standard light bulbs can also be replaced with full-spectrum light bulbs in areas of the home or office in which patients spend most of their time.
Light therapy should be considered as a first-line or adjuvant treatment in patients with nonseasonal major depression. This is significant as these cases of depression can be difficult to treat, and pharmaceutical drugs can produce significant side effects.6,7 

About the Authors

Michael T. Murray, ND, is President and CEO of Dr. Murray Natural Living and is Chief Science Officer for Enzymedica. Dr. Murray is a graduate, faculty member, and serves on the Board of Regents of Bastyr University, where he received his doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine. He is co-author of A Textbook of Natural Medicine and the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. He has also written over 30 other books including his latest book, The Magic of Food. For more information please visit

Karolyn A. Gazella is the publisher of the Natural Medicine Journal and the host of the Natural Medicine Journal Podcast series. She also co-hosts the Five to Thrive Live weekly radio show on the Cancer Support Network, which is also widely available as a podcast. She has been writing and publishing integrative health information since 1992 and is the author or co-author of several books and booklets on a variety of holistic health topics.


  1. Horowitz S. Shedding light on seasonal affective disorder. Altern Complement Ther. 2008;14(6):282-287.
  2. Melrose S. Seasonal affective disorder: an overview of assessment and treatment approaches. Depress Res Treat. 2015;2015:178564. 
  3. Golden RN, Gaynes BN, Ekstrom RD, et al. The efficacy of light therapy in the treatment of mood disorders: a review and meta-analysis of the evidence. The Am J Psychiatry. 2005;162(4):656-662.
  4. Baxendale S, O’Sullivan J, Heaney D. Bright light therapy for symptoms of anxiety and depression in focal epilepsy: randomized controlled trial. Br J Psychiatry. 2013;202(5):352-356.
  5. Botanov Y, Ilardi SS. The acute side effects of bright light therapy: a placebo-controlled investigation. PLOS One. 2013;8(9):e75893.
  6. Price J, Cole V, Goodwin GM. Emotional side-effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors: qualitative study. Br J Psychiatry. 2009;195(3):211-217.
  7. Breggin PR. Suicidality, violence and mania caused by selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): a review and analysis. Int J Risk Saf Med. 2003;16:31-49.