A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Brighten your mood with light therapy

Woman sitting in front of a light - Light therapy for seasonal affective disorder

The proper way to use the light box is to be about 18-24 inches from the light and to use it 30 minutes each day.

Over the winter months, many of us experience more intense symptoms of depression than in the warmer, sunnier months. For some, the reason for this depression may be Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a depression specifically linked to the change in seasons, particularly as days start to get colder and it gets darker earlier in the evenings.

It is thought that a main cause of SAD is the lack of sunlight people are exposed to during the colder and darker months of the year.

“Light goes through the eyes and retina and transfers impulses to your brain that regulate your body’s sleep-wake cycle,” said Mike Field, a nurse practitioner in Behavioral Health at Marshfield Clinic Health System.

Field added that while experiencing SAD during the winter months is most common, it’s also possible for people to feel the impact of light deprivation during the summer.

“In our modern society, you can have a person working long hours in a windowless office. Regardless of the season, that deprivation of light could impact a person’s mood,” Field said.

Symptoms of SAD

Symptoms of SAD may be very similar to the symptoms of depression:

  • Depressed mood
  • Low energy
  • Change in appetite
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless

Field said when diagnosing SAD, he looks for people whose symptoms get noticeably worse as the seasons begin to change, particularly after Labor Day as the weather turns colder.

Seeing the light

Therapy and medications are options to help treat SAD. Light therapy may be used to complement these other treatments. Field said bright light can have a more rapid and possibly larger antidepressant benefit than antidepressant drugs. When people stop using a light box, depression can return.

You can try to get light naturally by getting outside, but in the colder months, especially in a climate like Wisconsin, it may make more sense for people affected by SAD to purchase a light box,” Field said.

For those dealing with SAD, Field suggests beginning to use your light box shortly after Labor Day in early September.

Field said there are quality light boxes available from online retailers. He added that the key in purchasing a light box is that it should have at least 10,000 lux, which is a measure of how intense the light is. The proper way to use the light box is to be about 18-24 inches from the light and to use it 30 minutes each day.

You also may be able to get a light box via prescription. If you’re concerned about seasonal affective disorder, talk with your doctor.

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