Don’t be SAD

stackable-lightboxes-grace-hancock-2Last November, my husband John went on a business trip to Helsinki, Finland. Our friend, Timo, his wife Nora and two daughters Iida and Matilda, invited John to live with them during his stay.

Since it was late Autumn, many Finns were getting ready for those long dark winter days. Timo and Nora had taken out their sunlamp and had started their indoor light therapy.

John was impressed by the modern design of the lamp and took pictures, including a snapshot of Iida and Matilde standing next to the boxes of bright light (see below).

What is light therapy?

Light therapy mimics sunlight. It’s also called phototherapy. Phototherapy uses special fluorescent lights, which are brighter than regular indoor lights but not as bright as sunlight. Phototherapy can boost your energy, regulate your sleep and help prevent those winter blues or seasonal affective disorder, known as SAD.

How can reduced exposure to sunlight cause SAD?

Natural sunlight stimulates cells in the retina of your eyes that connect to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that controls mood, appetite and sleep. Reduced sunlight can disrupt brain chemicals, such as serotonin and melatonin, and disrupt your mood, energy levels, sleep patterns, appetite and other circadian rhythms. As a result, you feel sluggish and moody. Light therapy, at a certain time every day, can help reset your internal rhythm and stabilize your mood.

Who can get SAD?

People who live far from the equator, where winter daylight hours are very short, are at the greatest risk of getting SAD.

SAD symptoms

SAD usually starts in late autumn; it lasts all winter but goes away in the spring and summer. If you live in a northern country and have been feeling depressed during the winter season for at least 2 years in a row, then you should talk with your doctor.

SAD symptoms include low energy, a loss of interest or pleasure, not wanting to see people, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, sadness, feelings of heaviness, worthlessness or helplessness, weight gain and cravings for foods high in sugar and carbohydrates.

How to use the light

lamp
Iida and Matilda next to the big bright light

Usage varies from person to person. Some people respond best by sitting close to a sunlamp for 30 minutes every day, right after waking up in the morning. Others do better with evening light. Some people only need 15 minutes a couple of times a day whereas others might use a lamp for up to three hours. If you are using a sunlamp for the first time, see what works best for you.

You shouldn’t look directly at the light; however, you should keep your eyes open when next to it. You can read, write, chat, have breakfast (or a glass of wine in the evening) while sitting close to the lamp. Symptoms can be relieved in a few days, but it can also take several weeks. What’s important is to keep up with the daily light ritual until spring comes and the outdoor light is stronger.

If you suffer from major depression, talk to your doctor. In some cases, light therapy can be combined with antidepressant drugs, talk therapy or with cognitive behavioral therapy.

Precautions

For SAD, you don’t need a prescription for a light, but should buy a medically approved lamp. Ultraviolet lights, full-spectrum lights, tanning lamps or beds or heat lamps are ineffective for treating SAD.

It’s worth talking to a health professional before purchasing a lamp. Light therapy may not work for everyone. For example, people with skin cancer or disease, bipolar disorder, lupus and diabetes or with eye disease may be advised to avoid light therapy.

Phototherapy may not be suitable with certain drugs or supplements, such as antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, anti-psychotics or ST. John’s wort. These drugs can increase your sensitivity to the light and can cause skin reactions. Also, consult your doctor before taking melatonin supplements for SAD.

Additional things you can do to prevent SAD

  • Do regular exercise that raise your heart rate, such as brisk walking or biking.
  • Include muscle training exercises, like weights or stair climbing, at least 2 times a week.
  • When the sun is out, exercise or walk outside or do outdoor chores.
  • Move your work desk next to a window.
  • Supplement with Vitamin D during winter months (SAD may be related to a Vitamin D deficiency).

For more information on SAD, please read here.

First photo credit: Grace Hancock
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Julie Zimmer

Julie has extensive experience in nursing practice and education in a wide range of fields from intensive/coronary care, to medical-surgical to community and public health. Julie has Bachelor Degrees in Psychology and Nursing, and a Master’s Degree in Community Health Nursing Education. She has taught in faculties of nursing and in various communities in Toronto, Canada and in Geneva, Switzerland, and is a consultant to the International Council of Nurses (ICN). Julie also has years of experience teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in addition to coordinating an English department in a Swiss private school.

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