Posted by Brigham and Women's Hospital January 22, 2014
In late fall, as the days shorten and the temperature drops, many people note a change in their behavior and mental outlook. This may include a slight downturn in mood and a tendency to eat more carbohydrates and gain a little weight. For some people, these symptoms occur annually and become severely pronounced and disabling – a syndrome called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
The symptoms of SAD may include depression, fatigue, sleepiness, carbohydrate craving, weight gain, and loss of libido. The biochemical aspects of this condition are not fully understood, but include a shift in the circadian rhythm, abnormal secretion of melatonin from the pineal gland, and abnormal serotonin metabolism.
A number of therapies can be effective in relieving the symptoms of SAD. One well-studied and interesting therapy involves the use of bright light (and more recently, specific wavelengths of light, such as the blue end of the spectrum). Bright light therapy is interesting in that it is simple, effective, well-researched, and involves no medications.
This form of treatment involves exposure to an appropriate dose of artificial bright white (10,000 LUX) light for about 30 minutes every morning. Some people need a little more or less, and some require a second dose later in the day. The eyes must be open, but it is not necessary to look directly at the light. One may read or work on a hobby during the treatment. The light is best delivered by a specially-designed lamp that emits clear, glare-free, non-ultraviolet light.
What is the best way to begin? First, consult a physician or licensed mental health therapist to confirm that the symptoms are consistent with SAD. Next, purchase a quality product. You should be able to find a reliable lamp for less than $200.
For those with SAD, light therapy may truly brighten what can feel like a long, dark winter.
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