Light Therapy: Lifting the Winter Blues

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Have you found yourself slowing down, sleeping more, or having trouble concentrating during the winter?

You may have a disorder that can cause you to feel depressed or lethargic, among other symptoms.

About 6% of people are impacted by Seasonal Affective Disorder, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. It’s more common in people who live in higher latitudes, farther from the equator.

During the fall and winter, daylight hours become shorter.    Researchers believe that critical hormones in the brain responsible for sleep, mood, and energy levels are somehow impacted by sunlight.  When you get less sunlight, it is believed your mood may be negatively impacted.  

One of the those chemicals is melatonin, which has been linked to sleeping patterns.  Less sunlight is believed to boost melatonin production, which can make you feel sleepy or tired.

Another chemical is serotonin, which is produced in greater amounts when you get more sunlight.  A lack of serotonin is linked to depression in some people. 

More darkness may reduce serotonin levels and act as a trigger for depression.

These theories may explain the disorder, but it’s unclear exactly what triggers the response in some people, and not in others.

As spring approaches and sunlight increases, those who suffer from the disorder typically find their symptoms disappear and energy levels return to normal.

People who suffer serious symptoms impacting their mood, sleep, or energy may want to try light therapy.

Getting more sun or trying a light box can treat most cases of the disorder, and may be a better option than antidepressants, which can cause serious side effects.

Besides spending more time outdoors, you may opt to sit in front of a special light box for 30 to 45 minutes each day. Typically, such boxes contain fluorescent lights with a screen to filter out harmful UV rays.  Tanning beds are not used because they have UV rays that can cause wrinkles or even skin cancer.

Your eyes should be open to absorb the light through the retinas, but it’s not a good idea to stare at the light.

For most people, light treatment has few if any side effects.  Mild effects can include fatigue, headache, or eyestrain.

If symptoms don’t improve in a couple weeks with light therapy, other treatments should be considered.

Since fatigue and depression can be signs of other illnesses, it’s important to be evaluated by a doctor to rule out other medical problems. 

If you do have the disorder, it’s wise to discuss light therapy with your doctor before starting treatment.  It may not be advisable for people with skin sensitivities, retinal problems, or other medical issues that may be negatively impacted by light.

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