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Light Therapy for Winter Depression (SAD)

In a previous web page, we talked about how contact with the natural world promotes good mental health. One of the primary components of the natural world is light. Light is essential to physical, mental, and spiritual health. We can see the importance of light in our language with phrases such as "Let there be light," "Saved by the light," "The light at the end of the tunnel," "I saw the light of the day," and “He/she emanates a lot of light."

Now what does light have to do with depression? There is a condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression. It occurs during the winter months, when the days get shorter and the light diminishes. During this time many people experience seasonal mood changes that lead to anxiety and depression. The symptoms of winter depression are:

  • altered sleep patterns, with overall increased amount of sleep.
  • difficulty in getting out of bed in the morning and getting going.
  • increased lethargy and fatigue.
  • apathy, sadness and/or irritability.
  • increased appetite, carbohydrate craving and weight gain.
  • decreased physical activity.

Seasonal depression normally begins in October or November and remits in April or May. Researchers believe that Seasonal Affective Disorder is caused by winter's reduction in daylight hours, which desynchronizes the body clock and disturbs the circadian rhythms and serotonin metabolism.

Researchers have found that the way to treat winter depression is through increasing one's exposure to light. Light therapy helps to restore melatonin, (a hormone that promotes sleep), the neurotransmitter serotonin, and other mood-regulating molecules to their normal cycles and levels of production. This in turn reduces the symptoms of depression as effectively as antidepressant medications.

Here are some ways to benefit from light therapy:

  • Each morning, use a light box to expose yourself to bright artificial light. The light box should emit 10,000 LUX and you should sit in front of it for 15-20 minutes as soon as you wake up.
  • After you have sat in from of your light box, get outside. Even if it is cloudy or rainy outside, the light is sufficiently intense to restore your circadian rhythms.
  • Light up your homes as much as you need to. Use white wallpaper and light-colored carpet instead of dark paneling and dark carpet.
  • Choose to live in dwellings with large windows.
  • Allow light to shine through doors and windows when temperatures are moderate. Trim hedges around windows to let more light in.
  • Exercise outdoors.
  • Set up reading or work spaces near a window.
  • Ask to sit near a window in restaurants, classrooms or at your workplace.
  • Arrange a winter vacation in a warm, sunny climate.
     Finally, reduced exposure to sunlight during the winter also means that less natural Vitamin D is produced by the skin. Since vitamin D is thought to regulate mood, many clinicians recommend taking a Vitamin D supplement during the winter months. The data indicates that 2000 IU/day or more of Vitamin D may be necessary for most people to maintain adequate blood levels of this important hormone. After the winter is over, you may want to get your blood levels of Vitamin D3 checked. If they are in the normal range (between 30-50 ng/ml), you can cut back on the dose until the next winter. To get more information on what the levels of vitamin D mean, you can go to this website. VitaminCouncil.org

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