Objective: Many patients with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) have dysfunctional eating behaviors. Conversely, many women with bulimia nervosa have marked winter worsening of mood and bulimic symptoms. Controlled studies of light therapy in SAD and in bulimia nervosa have shown beneficial effects on mood and binge/purge symptoms. We explored the clinical use of light therapy in women with SAD who also had comorbid bulimia nervosa.
Method: Twenty-two female patients diagnosed using DSM-IV criteria with both bulimia nervosa and major depressive disorder with a seasonal (winter) pattern were treated with an open design, 4-week trial of light therapy (10,000 lux fluorescent light box with an ultraviolet filter, 30 to 60 minutes per day in the early morning). Patients were assessed before and after treatment with depression scales and with binge/purge diaries.
Results: Light therapy resulted in significant improvement in mood, with a mean 56% reduction in 29-item Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression scores following treatment (p < .001). The frequency of binges and purges per week also significantly decreased (p < .001) from baseline by a mean of 46% and 36%, respectively. Two (9%) of 22 patients became abstinent of binge/ purge episodes, compared with 10 (45%) of 22 patients who met criteria for remission of depressive symptoms. The light therapy was well tolerated by patients.
Conclusion: These results suggest that therapeutic effects of light therapy on mood and bulimic symptoms in patients with SAD and comorbid bulimia nervosa are sustained over at least 4 weeks. However, the low abstinence rate in bulimic symptoms indicates that light therapy may be most effectively used as an adjunctive treatment to medications and/or psychotherapy for bulimia nervosa.