Thursday, September 4, 2008

Light Therapy

Before I discuss light therapy, I must admit that about ten years ago, I read about seasonal affective disorder, and my mother bought me a $250 light box, which I religiously tried. My psychiatrist at the time didn't agree that I might be suffering from SAD, even though my depressions were clearly seasonal and had been for more than 25 years. I went ahead and pursued light therapy, although it didn't end up working for me. At the time I thought my doctor must have been right since the light box didn't make a difference.

If I had known then what I know now, I would have realized there were other alternatives to a light box--all of which I'm doing now. I should have spent more time outdoors. I should have changed the blinds in our bedroom to allow for more morning light. I should have opened all the blinds in our house each morning so that when I awakened, the house was lighter.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that light therapy is a far-reaching topic. If you think SAD might be a problem, it's worth discussing with your doctor. However, whether or not your doctor knows about SAD, I highly recommend reading Dr. Norman Rosenthal's book: Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder.

In terms of light therapy, light boxes do work for a significant part of the SAD population. A dawn simulator, which can be attached to any incandescent lamp so that it starts working while you're still sleeping, has been shown to have a big effect when you wake up. Some people use both the dawn simulator and light box in the morning and also at night to create an artificial dusk.

In Sweden, there are at least 80 light therapy rooms, at least there were when Dr. Rosenthal checked them out before his book was published. In these public rooms, people are exposed to 2,500-lux-intensity light in any direction. The rooms are a light color and so is the carpeting and furniture.

Again, if SAD is a problem for you, the idea would be to try and recreate this kind of environment in your own home. I have always thought our home was light, but we made the fairly minor changes I mentioned above, and I can feel the difference.

Some people who live in geographic areas which exacerbates their condition have made more dramatic changes. They have moved across the country in order to live where there is more sunshine. There are others who take vacations in winter so they can spend time in a lighter environment. But no matter what the climate, most people find it's very important to spend time outside each and every day, because outside light is so very important.

And light therapy isn't just important for people who have SAD. Dr. Rosenthal writes, "Our group and others have found that sub-groups of patients with eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and schizoaffective disorder show a degree of seasonal variation, with symptoms worsening during the winter. It would be reasonable to consider light therapy for people suffering from these conditions."

Whether you need to make a big change or small ones, if you're like me you will immediately see a difference. I am convinced that one of the key reasons I feel well most of the time is because I realized that whether or not I suffer from SAD, being outside and increasing the level of light in our house is a key wellness activity for me.

P.S. The graphics are examples of a light box and dawn simulator. I'm not recommending any products because I haven't used them, but if you check out Dr. Rosenthal's site, he has links.


Danielle said...

I know this is off topic but I wanted to let you know I am reading The Mindful Way through Depression. I read your post on it and looked for a follow up. Did you finish the book?

Bradley said...

Thank you for the info on Dr. Rosenthal. I definitely need to check out his site and his book. It's mostly sunny here in LA, but when those dreary days hit I'm dead to the world.

Wellness Writer said...

Yes, I did. I'll write about it next week.


Wellness Writer said...

Dear Bradley,
I live in West Los Angeles, and feel the same way.


naturalgal said...

Hi Susan,
As I said in an earlier comment I tried the light therapy and it just didn't work. I rented a lamp at a time when I didn't have much money. But I will say that I want to believe other things helped. For example. Whenever I move to a new place I make sure it has large windows preferably facing south or west.
Also, I grew up really appreciating fine woodworking. I love the the natural grains of quality tables, china cabinets, kitchen cabinets, floors ...
But several years ago I decided to purchase furniture that was painted white, or somehow finished with a light color (even though some of the other furniture I looked at was of better quality and skilled craftsmanship.)
If a dwelling doesn't have large windows facing south or west....I don't want to buy it or rent it.

katie said...

it sounds like a book i need to read. my despressions in the past (it's a new year - maybe i won't have one this year, hope, hope) have always started in October when Autumm is underway and last until march/april. my psychiatrist suggested light therapy last winter after i went off all my medications. the lamps were kind of expensive and i figured spring was coming and i'd feel better so i didn't get one. might be something i should start up pretty soon with my history, it's get's so cloudy and dark here in the pacific northwest. you always comes up with such interesting and helpful topics susan, thank you!

Wellness Writer said...

Thank for the kudos. I used to have depressions like yours. If they started in October they would last through March. I, too, am hoping to change things this year.

Since the light box didn't work for me, I'm doing a host of other things. In the revised edition of this book, Dr. Rosenthal lists a lot of wellness activities that he didn't in an earlier version. Most of them are ones I've already implemented, but he also writes about nutrition and exercise, which I think are so very important.

Perhaps, that's why I'm now playing badminton! (smiling face). I'm the oldest person in my class, but the most enthusiastic, and since I've played tennis since I was four, I have all the racket skills to bring to my new sport!