Light therapy is currently the most widely used treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Light therapy has proven to be an effective treatment for those suffering from SAD, given that winter is comprised of shorter days, less actual daylight, and less exposure to sunlight.
Light therapy uses an artificial lamp that mimics sunlight by way of full-spectrum light. Serotonin turnover is at its lowest in the winter season, but its production can be increased with luminosity.
The recommended exposure is to sit in front of a light machine each morning for 20 to 60 minutes, although studies show that 40 minutes is the optimal time to receive most benefits. Those suffering from SAD are able to purchase at-home light kits and use them daily through the colder months.
It can only be an effective treatment if used properly. Light therapy requires a set amount of time each day to be spent in front of the light machine and missing even one session can see less-effective results.
Light therapy is not a new thing, in fact over the last 20 years multiple studies have consistently shown that it is an effective treatment for those suffering from SAD, and is also showing benefit to those that suffer from depression in general.
There’s certainly been a lot of skepticism about the use of light therapy machines, largely due to many marketing companies jumping on top of the hype. What’s important is that there is a large body of scientific evidence, showing its effectiveness in lifting overall mood and a convenient method to see past SAD during the colder months.
One such skepticism that remains is the use of a light visor, which you can picture as a poorly fashioned sun visor from the ‘90s. It is a head mounted unit that emits light frequencies, which is considered to be highly portable, lightweight and convenient. However, a few questions remain as to its efficiency, with one study noting no difference between 105 patients with SAD being treated with the light visor, as compared to patients receiving no treatment at all.
When comparing light therapy boxes to the use of antidepressant medication over a five-week period 40 SAD patients responded more positively to light therapy than medication. Light therapy also improved depression scores faster. You don’t have the same detrimental side-effects with light therapy as you do with antidepressant medication, such as addiction, withdrawal, insomnia or drowsiness.
It’s interesting to note that light therapy can also be used as a preventative measure before signs of SAD even develop. Even if you commence light therapy at the earliest symptoms, studies show that it can alleviate, or perhaps prevent depression from occurring all together.
Of course individual circumstances do vary greatly, but if you have previously been diagnosed with SAD then light therapy is highly recommended for preventing mood disturbance, lethargy and fatigue in the winter months. Response rates to light therapy are around 80% in select patients.
Vitamin D supplementation
Vitamin D deficiency is now a global health concern. With depression increasing by 8-14%, and suicide as much as 50%, without sufficient intake of this important vitamin. There have been many studies carried out as to the effectiveness of using vitamin D to treat depression, but not without much controversy. In one in-depth report published on National Institutes of Health, it was noted that vitamin D demonstrated similar effect to that of antidepressant medication.
Funnily enough, you won’t often hear of the level of effectiveness of vitamin D in treating depression, especially considering the global depression drug market is set to boom to 16.80 billion USD by 2020. The use of supplements like vitamin D is cost-effective, simple, convenient and doesn’t come with the burden of side-effects that are directly linked to antidepressants. Further, supplements can also be used in the prevention of developing SAD in the first place.
Given winter carries shorter days and in many regions less exposure to sun, and of course colder temperatures, we generally spend a lot more time indoors. Ultraviolet rays from the sun are important to help the body produce vitamin D naturally, as our bodies cannot produce vitamin D alone. We have also learnt a great deal about the importance of exposure to sunlight, in order to prevent chronic diseases.
However, because we have been warned by authorities about the dangers of skin cancer and melanoma, we have been placed in a position where we feel we need to avoid the sun entirely. Ironically, excessive UVR exposure accounts for only 0.1% of the total global burden of disease, as compared to figures showing that 50% of the global population are now deficient in vitamin D.
So whether you supplement on vitamin D or you’re able to exposure your skin directly to UV rays from the sun during winter, both options will provide beneficial effect in reducing depressive symptoms associated with SAD.
While it can take several weeks to experience the benefits of antidepressants, they are commonly prescribed for those that do not feel positive benefit of light therapy, or have more severe symptoms of SAD.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) are the leading types of antidepressants prescribed for those suffering from SAD. This medication helps to increase the availability of serotonin in your body. When there are higher levels of serotonin available, depressive feelings subside.
If you believe that you’re suffering from SAD in the cooler months, by consulting a doctor or psychiatrist sooner rather than later, you can get on top of your depression and prevent its worsening. By understanding the patterns of seasonal affective disorder, it will help you to tackle the symptoms, preventing you from feeling so isolated throughout the winter months.