S.A.D. Time Doesn’t Have To Be: Shining a Light on Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Shining The Light On Seasonal Affective Disorder
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By Mark Rummel

This is the perfect time to shine a bright light on these S.A.D. days, medical experts believe. Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons, according to the Mayo Clinic. Experts say S.A.D. usually begins and ends at about the same time each year, with symptoms often starting in the fall and continuing through the darker, colder winter months.

About 10 million Americans have been diagnosed with S.A.D., while many more go undiagnosed. But the best treatment is easy, fast, cheap and involves no medication expenses: sit close to bright light for half an hour each morning to boost your mood, increase focus and fight irritability.

Light therapy is generally most effective for perhaps 30 minutes soon after you wake up each morning. But, other research says people who experience symptoms about 4 p.m.—about the time the winter sun goes down—is another good time for an afternoon pick-me-up.

That’s the recommendation from Michael Terman, Ph.D., of the Center for Environmental Therapeutics. One study showed light therapy can be as effective as anti-depressants in treating S.A.D., with fewer side effects.

Most people with S.A.D. say they face depression and have less energy and little interest in doing normal things, as the sun comes up later and goes down earlier in our Northern Hemisphere. It can make you feel moody and zap your energy. Sometimes, S.A.D. causes depression in the spring or early summer, but not often, the Mayo professionals say.

S.A.D. SYMPTOMS IN WINTER Symptoms specific to winter-onset S.A.D., also called winter depression, may include oversleeping, appetite changes, craving carbohydrates, weight gain and general tiredness or low energy. Spring and summer S.A.D. symptoms can include insomnia (trouble sleeping,) poor appetite, weight loss plus, anxiety or agitation. While the actual causes of S.A.D. are unknown, research has found biological links including too little Vitamin D and an overproduction of melatonin, which regulates sleep, according to the National Institutes of Health. The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter months can play a part in feeling depressed or listless, the NIH experts say. People in Alaska are more likely to suffer from S.A.D. than Floridians, who enjoy abundant sunshine year round.

SUCH A SIMPLE, HELPFUL SOLUTION

How should sufferers overcome S.A.D.? Put a little light on the subject.

The best-known treatment for S.A.D. is light therapy (also called phototherapy.) This is also the simplest way to fight it, according to Mayo doctors. This can be aided with medications and psychotherapy, depending on each case. It’s a real thing—S.A.D. is more than just the “winter blues” or a seasonal funk, they add. Take steps to keep your mood and motivation steady and healthy all year long. Almost everyone can benefit from having more light in their lives during winter months, says the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Researchers say daytime exposure to bright light may also improve conditions related to dementia. People tend to feel more positive, hopeful and happy as they bask in bright lights—similar to the feeling enjoyed while sitting on a beach in summer, they add.

DIFFERENT COLORS HELP DIFFERENTLY

Amazingly, the color of the light may have different benefits for different people, according to a study at the University of Arizona, as reported recently on National Public Radio. Doctors had tried everything except surgery to help 70-year-old Ann Jones treat chronic migraine headaches, which she had endured since childhood. In 2018, her doctor got her into a University of Arizona study which tested whether two hours of daily exposure to bright green light could relieve migraines and other types of chronic pain. While she was skeptical at first, Jones tried it—and felt migraine relief after six weeks. Now, she rarely has headaches, versus continual daily ones, and now they are less intense than before the green light therapy.

Almost everyone can benefit from having more light in their lives during winter months, says the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. 

WHY GREEN LIGHT?

The idea that there is a link between green light and pain has been explored in several research studies. One 2017 study found that pain rates decreased when patients were
exposed to green light. Rodrigo Noseda at Harvard Medical School has studied light sensitivity. He learned green light is less likely to expand a migraine versus other colors. In some cases, green light decreases the intensity of bad headaches, and can trigger positive emotions. That’s not true of all color lights. Red lights can make migraines worse, since it is often associated with negative feelings, the Harvard
research shows.

OTHER COLORS HELP DIFFERENT WAYS

But red light IS good for some treatments, further research says. A 2013 study says red light treatments can help reduce wrinkles but works best when combined with anti-aging creams and anti-oxidants such as vitamin C. Blue light can help you sleep. That’s because blue is considered calming, and helps regulate your circadian rhythm, researchers have learned. Blue light treatments can help you perk up during the day, while other blue bulbs can help you sleep at night, they say. Can something as simple as exposing yourself to light reduce pain, help your skin or help you sleep better? Really??? This light therapy costs little to try and might help you solve one of winter’s biggest maladies, to help brighten your mood. 

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