Winter is a difficult time of year for many of us. When winter arrives, most people complain of feeling sad, tired, and unable to sleep. While we cannot control the weather or the seasons, we can control how we deal with them.
A non-drug treatment option for the Winter Blues, also called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is light therapy. It can help you feel better before the end of the cold season by relieving the symptoms of winter depression.
Light Therapy has recently gained popularity as an effective treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder, thanks to the introduction of rechargeable LED devices and color-changing light bulbs.
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What are winter blues or seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), sometimes known as the Winter Blues and Seasonal Depression, is a mood disorder that typically affects people during the cold winter months. It is a subtype of major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.
Though it can strike at any time of year, it is most common during December, January, and February. Those mostly affected the Northern Hemisphere residents who experience it during the fall and winter seasons when sunlight is scarce.
Seasonal affective disorder affects 0.5 to 3% of the general population, 10 to 20% of those with major depressive disorder, and around 25% of patients with bipolar disorder. Women are more prone to it.
It is estimated that around 3% of all Americans suffer from it. Studies show that 25 – 67% of people with SAD have at least one relative who has the disorder.
The seasonal affective disorder typically manifests in a person during their twenties or thirties.
The symptoms of SAD include low mood, low energy and unexplained fatigue, irritability, loss of interest, overeating, and weight gain due to increased cravings for carbohydrates, anxiety, sadness, increase in sleep (hypersomnia), and symptoms of either major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder.
In most people, the symptoms of SAD subside in the spring and summer months.
About 10% of persons with SAD have the reverse seasonal pattern, with symptoms spiking in the spring/summer and dropping in the fall/winter. These people usually have a loss of appetite and sleeplessness, as opposed to those who have symptoms of overeating and excessive sleep in the fall and winter.
Up to 50% of people affected remain symptom-free in consecutive winters. In nearly 40% of SAD patients, episodes of depression persist after winter and well into the summer, resulting in a change in diagnosis to either major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder.
The seasonal affective disorder results from an imbalance in the brain’s chemical messengers, specifically the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and melatonin. This imbalance is triggered by a shortage of natural sunlight.
Patients with SAD appear to have disrupted sleep-wake cycles (circadian rhythms) and are unable to synchronize their sleep-wake cycle with the night-day pattern, resulting in impaired sleep, mood, and behavior as daylight hours change.
If ignored, it may lead to depression and other mood problems.
The symptoms of SAD are present for 40% of the year and usually recur each winter, beginning between September and November, and continuing until March or April. For roughly 20% of the population, mild symptoms of SAD cause discomfort, but no major suffering.
The many different treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder include Cognitive Behavior Therapy, medications such as vitamin D supplements and antidepressants, and light therapy.
Increased exercise and exposure to natural light are also recommended as lifestyle interventions to reduce these seasonal mood fluctuations.
Light therapy or Bright light therapy (BLT) has been in use to treat SAD for over 30 years. Also called phototherapy, it can help reset the body’s internal (circadian) clock and alleviate the symptoms of SAD.
However, if a person has bipolar disorder, it may trigger a manic episode. So, bipolar patients must take advice from their therapist before starting BLT.
What is Light Therapy?
Light therapy is a highly popular and effective non-pharmaceutical treatment option for the winter blues. In fact, it is one of the first-line treatments for SAD.
Light therapy is based on the premise that exposure to artificial bright light during the dark winter months can help drive off the winter blues.
Light therapy lamps are meant for the eyes and the skin. Besides treating winter blues, light therapy is beneficial in various diseases, including vitamin D deficiency and any form of immobility that prevents patients from getting enough sun exposure.
Light therapy has been shown to be effective in up to 50% of diagnosed cases.
In a 2019 review by Nussbaumer-Streit B, Forneris CA, Morgan LC, et al., the authors wrote:
Overall, white light and infrared light therapy reduced the incidence of SAD numerically compared with no light therapy. Bright light therapy reduced the risk of SAD incidence by 36%; however, the 95% confidence interval (CI) was very broad and included both possible effect sizes in favor of bright light therapy and those in favor of no light therapy. Infrared light reduced the risk of SAD by 50% compared with no light therapy.
A 2020 metastudy by Pjrek E, Friedrich ME, Cambioli L, et al. found:
BLT can be regarded as an effective treatment for SAD.
Some common applications for light therapy include treating depression (by reducing the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin released in the brain), a form of vision therapy for treating amblyopia (lazy eye), and a form of treatment for pain (when infra-red light lamps are used).
Light therapy involves sitting close (around 1 foot) to an electrically charged box emitting white light (also called SAD lamps, vitamin D Lamps, sunlight lamps, and light therapy lamps) and exposing oneself to the bright light for 30 to 60 minutes.
Before buying a light-box, consult your doctor or therapist about which one would suit you the most, and which of its features and options would be useful to you. Of course, you must select a safe gadget since it involves electricity.
How does Light Therapy work for seasonal affective disorder?
Light therapy works by mimicking natural sunlight with light from an electric lamp. When a person is exposed to this bright light, their body’s internal clock gets reset and synchronized to daylight hours. Then this rebalances their dopamine and serotonin levels and helps relieve their SAD symptoms.
A lack of natural sunlight during the winters causes a lowering of mood in many, and in some, a more severe case of seasonal affective disorder. Some even develop mild to moderate depression. Light therapy has been shown to help with SAD and winter depression.
Light therapy can help SAD sufferers feel better by boosting their mood, combating fatigue, improving focus, restoring sleep, and losing weight.
The theory is that there is a direct link between the amount of light a person is exposed to and their mood. In addition, light is thought to have a restorative effect on the body, making it an effective treatment for seasonal mood disorders.
The exposure is usually carried out within the first hour of waking up.
Technology today has made available smart lights that can be controlled via the internet (IoT or Internet of Things). These can be set to gradually brighten up in response to the sunrise or a specified time in the morning.
The light generated by the light-box simulates sunlight and is usually flicker-free LED white light with 99% filtered out Ultraviolet (UV) rays. Light therapy can help with SAD by stimulating the brain to produce less melatonin (a sleep hormone) and more serotonin (a hormone that affects mood).
Light therapy boxes usually emit white light, but they can be of other colors too. Blue light can help you relax if you are excited or hyperactive. Red lights are naturally energizing and can be used for quickly counteracting low moods like that in SAD.
How long should light therapy last?
Light therapy is often prescribed for 30 to 60 minutes each day, depending on the strength of the light utilized. The majority of light therapy boxes emit light at a brightness of 10,000 lux. For beginners, a lower-intensity light of 2,500 lux may be given for 60 to 120 minutes.
It works best when used in the early morning at the same time every day. The therapy should be used for several weeks to provide noticeable relief.
The results are seen within a few days. However, if you are just beginning, it may take a few weeks to have a positive effect on you.
If you have been using it for some time, like most people, you will need to continue using light treatment throughout the winter until spring.
When light therapy is stopped, the symptoms of SAD do not return for a few days. So, a person on light therapy may safely discontinue it for 1 to 2 days with little difficulty (for example, break therapy for a weekend trip).
If you are going through seasonal affective disorder, light therapy is a proven, effective treatment, with a number of different ways to use it in your life. But don’t expect miracles, and understand that light therapy is only one tool out of many to help you with your winter blues.
In summary, SAD can severely affect your ability to function normally during the dark winter months. A light-box can help you wake up and trigger the release of neurochemicals to help you overcome your tiredness and sleepiness. Treatment with light therapy boxes can take as little as 30 minutes a day and can improve your mood almost immediately.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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