Our Review Summary
This story reports on a pilot study that used light boxes, similar to those for treating seasonal affective disorder, to increase flagging sex drive in men. Researchers said exposure to bright light for 30 minutes every morning for two weeks led to higher average testosterone levels and greater average reported levels of sexual satisfaction, possibly due to a series of hormonal affects.
The story appears to rely nearly entirely on the news release and does not mention costs, harms or limitations of the study, which researchers acknowledge was too small to draw clinical conclusions. Overall, the story was too brief to be helpful and as many stories of “new findings” do, shared only positive conclusions.
Why This Matters
Any study on a potential treatment for sexual dysfunction is bound to trigger an avalanche of coverage. This proved no exception, generating more than 20 news stories from outlets as varied as the BBC, Huffington Post, Fox News and Maxim, which ran the grossly misleading headline: “Want To Be Better At Sex? Just Turn on the Lights.” All this hype for a study hasn’t been published in any peer-reviewed journal and involved just a few dozen patients.
Even the researchers involved acknowledge that a large, independent trial is needed before light therapy can be recommended as a treatment. And while there could be a connection between short days and low sex drive, it’s far from clear how many men can blame their lack of libido on a dearth of sunlight. Such cautions are lost amid sensational coverage that could leave readers with a false impression that you can cure sexual dysfunction simply by turning on a light switch.
How much does a light therapy box cost? The story doesn’t say. Using an online search, we found models ranging from $40 to $300, depending on size and features. It would be helpful to know the duration and intensity of light treatment in the study as well, as this can influence cost.
The story quotes the lead researcher saying that the light treatment group had an average sexual satisfaction score of “around 6.3” on a 10-point scale after treatment compared with an average score “of around 2.7” for the group that used a placebo device.
The story does not give ranges, which might let readers know whether all of the patients or just some of them experienced improvements from light exposure. It also does not report that average testosterone levels increased in men who had been treated to 3.6 nanograms per milliliter from 2.1 nanograms per milliliter with no significant change in the control group, according to the news release.
The story doesn’t mention any potential risks. Light therapy is generally safe, according to the Mayo Clinic, but mild side effects could include eyestrain, headaches, nausea, irritability, and agitation. Light therapy poses special risks for people with certain medical conditions or on medications such as antibiotics that can cause skin or eyes to be sensitive to light, and it can trigger mania in people with bipolar disorder.
The story mentions that the trial is “small,” but should have gone further in alerting readers to the preliminary nature of the study, which has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. According to the news release, researchers said the results should be treated with caution and a larger study is needed before light therapy can be recommended as a clinical treatment.
The story says low sexual desire “can affect significant numbers of men after the age of 40, with studies finding that up to 25 percent of men report problems.” Still, it’s unclear how many of these cases might be related to seasonal affects. Aging, medications, sleep problems, mental disorders and many other factors can affect libido.
The story does not use any independent source and does not address conflicts of interest, though we could not identify any.
The story does not compare light therapy with existing treatment options for lack of sexual desire among men, such as antidepressants, testosterone injections and couples therapy.
Many people are aware that light boxes are available and relatively commonplace, so we’ll rate this N/A. However, the story would have been stronger had it discussed what kind of light box the researchers used, and if it’s available, etc.
The story mentions that light is used to treat seasonal affective disorder, so it’s not a new therapy. A little digging would have shown that light therapy to treat male sexual dysfunction isn’t a new idea; it was the subject of 2009 paper involving the same lead researcher who did a very small study prior to the one in this Reuters story.
This story relies very heavily on a news release from the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, but doesn’t cite it.
For example, several quotes appear in both the news story and the news release:
A quote in the story:
“The increased levels of testosterone explain the greater reported sexual satisfaction,” he said. “In the Northern hemisphere, the body’s testosterone production naturally declines from November through April, and then rises steadily through the spring and summer with a peak in October.”
was also in the news release as:
“The increased levels of testosterone explain the greater reported sexual satisfaction. In the Northern hemisphere, the body’s Testosterone production naturally declines from November through April, and then rises steadily through the spring and summer with a peak in October.”
The reliance on the news release extended to passages in the story that weren’t quotes, such as this statement:
“Low sexual desire affects significant numbers of men after the age of 40, with studies finding that up to 25% of men report problems.”
Which appeared in the news release as:
“Low sexual desire can affect significant numbers of men after the age of 40, with studies finding that up to 25 percent of men report problems.”
Total Score: 3 of 9 Satisfactory