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Jan 07, 2013, 9:56 am
Let there be light: Light therapy brightens some people's lives
By Brian Todd

Sleeping more during winter, when the sun is down longer than other parts of the year, is one possible symptom of people with seasonal affective disorder. (Thinkstock photo)

Thomas Harman

  Just because the sun is down for longer periods this time of year doesn’t mean you need to feel down, too. A little — big, really — ray of light can brighten your day.

According to Thomas Harman, M.D., of the Rochester Clinic, seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, usually appears in certain people during late fall or early winter and goes away during spring and summer.

“It’s a form of depression,” Harman says. And while it tends not to be as severe as some other common forms of depression, it can be very debilitating to people afflicted by it.

Aside from the lack of sunlight, Harman says there is no real understanding of what causes SAD. While there are theories concerning neurotransmitters and treatments involving B vitamins and St. John’s wort, the leading treatment for the disorder is a ray of sunshine, or at least the next best thing.

Light therapy involves sitting in front of a special bright lamp, Harman says. While previous treatments called for full-spectrum lights, today doctors recommend exposure to the visible spectrum of light. That means SAD can be treated with ordinary light, though it must be taken in extraordinary amounts. The typical treatment calls for 10,000 lux over a 30-minute period once a day. A lux is a measure of luminous intensity.

While a standard light bulb emits the same kind of light needed for light therapy, Harman says the bulbs you typically have in your house do not emit enough light to serve as treatment. That said, fluorescent lights typically are best if only because a part of the treatment involves actually seeing or sensing the light with your eyes. Since incandescent bulbs tend to burn hotter and give off bright spots that can damage the eyes, fluorescent lights are better, he says.

People susceptible to developing SAD have likely suffered from some form of depression previously, Harman says. And while up to 10 percent of the population can develop SAD, it is more common among people who live in northern latitudes.

“People who move north are more susceptible,” Harman says. “And more women than men get it.”

If you are in your 20s, you are also a prime candidate for SAD.

“I wouldn’t expect someone who is 60 to develop it for the first time,” Harman says. “Though it’s possible.”

The main thing people should look for, he says, is someone who tends to sleep more, especially as the light begins to become more scarce in the cold season. An increased appetite, especially for sweets and starches, combined with seasonal weight gain can also be a sign of someone developing SAD.

“If you’re cranky or irritable, if your relationships are suffering, those can all be signs,” Harman says. “You tend to get this overall heavy, weighted-down feeling.”

Harman says there is a second type of seasonal affective disorder, one that tends to come on in the spring. This type of SAD, while also coming with feelings of depression, is usually accompanied by less sleeping and a loss of appetite. And, he says, it is not a good candidate for light therapy.

That said, there are a few other disorders where light therapy can be a treatment. Those might include bipolar disorder or severe depression. But, Harman cautions, anyone suffering from these disorders should get a psychiatric referral from their physician.

“If they have access to a psychiatric consultation through their family physician, that’d be good,” Harman said.

Light therapy can be done at home when it is convenient, Harman says. Most light boxes range from about $200 on up, and can be found at most drug stores.

“It’s not universally covered by health insurance, so make sure this is what you need,” Harman says.

And don’t just head to the tanning salon looking for a pick-me-up.

“There’s no evidence tanning salons work,” he says. “There’s something useful about the light being seen.”

But if properly diagnosed and with a proper light box, the good news is that SAD is easily treatable.

“You just sit in front of a fluorescent lamp,” Harman says. “There’s no special time of day needed. And within two to five sessions, you’ll notice a difference in how you feel.”

That difference is the brightening of your disposition, Harman says. SAD may be a prevalent ailment, especially here in the land of the long nights, but one simple treatment can brighten your whole outlook.


Brian Todd is a freelance writer from Rochester, Minn. 

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