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Combating Seasonal Depression with Phototherapy

Originally published on

Depression is an unfortunate reality that many people struggle with on a daily basis. Seasonal affective disorder is also known as seasonal depression, or by the acronym SAD. It is a type of mood disorder that follows the seasons and is worst in wintertime. SAD is a subtype of depression that affects approximately six percent of the population in the United States. Many more people suffer from the “winter blues,” a less severe form of seasonal depression.


Most people are aware that the weather affects their mood and feelings. Often people with seasonal mood changes feel more tired during the “darker” season or experience changes in appetite with carbohydrate craving and weight gain. If you have ever felt down on a cloudy or rainy day or brighter and happier when the sun is shining, you may relate to this. People with SAD often feel irritable, tired, depressed, or have a persistently low mood during the winter months yet experience none of these symptoms during the summertime.


Why Seasonal Depression Is So Common


Seasonal depression is common in North America and the majority of Europe because of the latitude of these places. These places receive little direct sunlight when compared with the rest of the world. Often life-style may aggravate the lack of sunlight exposure.


Seasonal depression is most common in areas experiencing long winters and little exposure to sunlight. In SAD, depressive symptoms are only experienced in the seasons of low light. They will resolve with exposure to sunlight or as the weather warms.


In part, the prevalence of seasonal depression is explained by the population density of people living at these higher latitudes. Most of these people do not get enough exposure to the sun on a regular basis throughout the year.


What Is Phototherapy?


Phototherapy is also referred to as light therapy. It is among the most effective treatments for seasonal affective disorder and is considered the treatment of choice for SAD and its subsyndromal form. It is considered by many professionals to be equally or more effective for treating seasonal depression than antidepressant medications.


“Light therapy is thought to work well because it stimulates the same receptors in the eye that natural sunlight would. It effectively tricks your brain into thinking that you are spending time in the sun,” stated expert psychiatrist, Dr. Alexander Neumeister.


Not all types of light exposure have phototherapeutic effects. There is a particular type of light that is used in light therapy. Unlike other forms of light such as desk lamps or tanning beds, these lights are bright enough to be effective in light therapy. They also do not expose the body to harmful UV rays that are associated with cancer.


Treating Seasonal Depression with Light Therapy: What You Need to Know

A doctor or psychiatrist can give you essential advice about self-treatment with phototherapy. Usually, the duration of treatment will last the entire length of the fall and winter season in your region. You will stop using light therapy only when you are getting enough natural exposure to the sun in the springtime. You can “support” your light therapy by spending at least 30 minutes outdoors daily, preferably between late morning to early afternoon hours.


When selecting a light therapy box, you should look for one that emits at least 10,000 lux. You should also avoid lights that emit a high level of UV radiation.

Light therapy boxes can be used at any time of the day. Most experts recommend using them first thing in the morning when you wake up. A typical recommendation is to work your way up to using the light therapy box for 30 minutes each day.


You should position the box in front of your face, but not stare directly into its light. You may eat, read, or use the computer while completing your light therapy sessions.


If you think you suffer from seasonal depression, ask your doctor if self-treatment with light therapy is right for you.

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