Is Light Treatment Really Effective in Eliminating SAD?

As the days become shorter and the darkness lasts longer, some people find themselves feeling depressed. This is more than just a sentiment; it’s a disorder that can affect one’s emotional and physical well-being. Scientists and doctors believe that exposure to a special light may help treat people who find themselves down in the dumps during the long, cold winter months.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression related to the changing of seasons. It typically occurs during autumn and winter when the days become shorter and the sun shines for only a short period of time. Much more than just the “winter blues,” SAD is a diagnosable condition that saps one’s energy and has negative effects on everyday life. Symptoms of SAD include an inability to concentrate, feelings of worthlessness, a loss of pleasure and uncontrollable urges to eat sugar and high-carbohydrate foods. Although SAD fades once spring arrives, it can can leave one overweight and unmotivated. Some people with SAD experience symptoms in the spring and summer but they are in the vast minority.

Image Credit: Mikael Kristenson

What is Light Treatment?

Since most cases of SAD occur in the dark winter months, special light boxes were created to act as a form of light treatment. Light treatment boxes are created to effectively replicate sunshine so that those who feel depressed due to darkness are able to experience a form of “natural” light. Light boxes provide 10,000 lux (a measure of light intensity), which is about 100 times brighter than regular indoor lighting.

Light treatment therapy involves sitting close to the light box for thirty minutes a day, usually soon after waking up. One’s eyes must be open during the duration of light therapy, but one should not look straight into the light due to its extreme brightness. Instead, it’s recommended that people read a book or magazine or catch up on work. Some light boxes even simulate the sunrise by gradually increasing from darkness to light.

Is Light Treatment Effective in Treating SAD?

Image Credit: Aaron Wilson

Researchers at 15 medical centers in the United States have had great success using light therapy with those who have had a clear, prolonged history of SAD. Some scientific studies have shown that light therapy is effective when compared to placebos and is as effective as antidepressants in many cases of non-severe SAD. Furthermore, some people find that light therapy works faster than antidepressants, with improvements happening in just a matter of days after starting the therapy.

However, as with many treatments, the effectiveness and suitability of light therapy depends on the person taking it. Some people need more light or a brighter light to make a difference in their SAD, while others are unable to tolerate light therapy. Those with bipolar disorder should avoid using light boxes as it may trigger an episode of mania or hypomania, while those on antipsychotics or antibiotics should check with their doctor to ensure that their medication does not make them more sensitive to light.

Most people who suffer from SAD find light therapy to be extremely effective in eliminating their symptoms during seasons of depression. If you believe you may be suffering with SAD, consult your doctor to see if light box therapy may be a treatment option for you.

Feature Image: Daniel Bowman