There are many clues connecting ADHD to circadian rhythm. At the same time, circadian rhythm is directly manipulated by bright light therapy. Could therapy lamps benefit those who struggle with inattention and hyperactivity more than pills do?

ADHD sufferers share a number of genes and characteristics with those suffering with seasonal depression which we know to be related to insufficient light. And indeed, the syndrome of hyperactivity and inattention is related to a lack of light, too. Epidemiologists revealed that in countries and states with greater amounts of sunshine, less children suffer with ADHD.

We also know that ADHD often comes together with sleep disturbances, especially in the evening. And by “often” I mean that three in four people with ADHD struggle to fall asleep, usually due to a delay of the sleep phase. Recently, we have also learned that disturbed sleep, at least partly, contributes to inattention and hyperactivity characteristic of ADHD.

These light-related circadian aspects of ADHD are not addressed by normal medication or psychotherapy. Light therapy, on the other hand, is the perfect treatment for circadian problems because the bright light in the morning mimics a sunny day, thereby informing the brain that the internal clock is delayed and should be updated.

If we can improve sleep by manipulating the circadian misalignments with light therapy, we can also improve inattention and possibly even hyperactivity. But do we have proof that it really works? Unfortunately, the gap between what might work in theory and what really helps in practice is too wide to be fully bridged by existing scientific data.

One study shows that morning bright light exposure helped to reduce hyperactivity and total ADHD score in ADHD patients. Another study showed that bright light therapy reduced symptoms of ADHD by 10-20%. Both were pilot studies with no control group. Importantly, in all cases the improvement was directly related to a sleep shift: how much earlier they went to bed and woke up.

“This open-label pilot study suggests that bright light therapy is a feasible treatment for adults with ADHD and may be a successful complementary treatment for delayed sleep timing and symptoms of ADHD in adults. A randomized, placebo-controlled trial is needed to assess futher treatment effects,”

Fargasson et al. (2017). Correcting delayed circadian phase with bright light therapy predicts improvement in ADHD symptoms: A pilot study. Journal of Psychiatric Research.

In addition, there is one more study on the topic which claims to provide us with additional positive results. However, the data is not presented clearly enough to allow for any conclusions at this time.

Altogether, the results are promising, but any concrete conclusions would be premature.

Treat ADHD with bright light or not?

We certainly cannot call these studies a proof of the theory. Nevertheless, it may make sense to give treatment a try, especially knowing that phototherapy comes with no adverse effects. If deciding for myself, I would make a decision based on my sleep pattern.

  • In the study, ADHD symptoms improved by the bright light therapy to the extent of which sleep advanced. So, if I was going to bed late or struggling with falling asleep and also had ADHD, I would give lamps a try. And given that the researchers were using a Phillips device, I would buy the same. Of course, there is not yet proof that it works. On the other hand, no treatment comes with guaranteed results anyway and there are no side effects to bright light. So, even if you don’t get the results you were hoping for, there’s no downside to trying.
  • If my sleep pattern was fine, however, I would find it meaningless. There are three basic types of ADHD but in a way, there are as many different ADHDs as people who suffer from it. And while I do believe that bright light therapy may help with ADHD related evening sleep disturbances, I do not find justification for claiming that the lamps can aid with ADHD in general. At least, not in 2019.

In either case, I would opt for psychotherapy as the first step. No matter whether the next decades will bring us positive or negative findings about the connection between bright light therapy and ADHD, in 2019 we only know for sure that medication and psychotherapy work – the former coming with side effects and the latter without. The efficiency is similar, so deciding for psychotherapy over pills would take a matter of seconds for me.

Technical: home use of a standard UV-protected 10,000-lux Bright light therapy box (EnergyLight HF3318/60, Philips, Andover, MA) every morning.