Shorter, darker days can trigger seasonal depressions and gloomy moods. Our expert gives practical advice on how to get the best from phototherapy.
There’s a reason people joke about hibernating in the winter. It has to do with the body’s circadian rhythms, also known as the body clock.
On a cellular level, that internal clock responds to various cues, or zeitgebers. The most powerful cue in our environment is light, especially daylight.
Daily changes in light tell us when to be alert and active and when to settle down toward sleep. For some, the seasonal change toward winter’s shorter days leads to melancholy, trouble concentrating, lower energy levels, and more desire to sleep.
For those who have an underlying vulnerability to mood disorders, shifts in light or lack of light can precipitate depressions marked by sadness, negative thoughts, and irritability. For those who are especially sensitive, a gloomy day can trigger a gloomy mood and nihilistic thinking.
Phototherapy or light therapy has been shown to improve mood symptoms, motivation, sleep, and energy levels in people prone to seasonal depressions. It is often used in conjunction with antidepressants.
What is the best way to “apply” light therapy?
To be effective, you want exposure that is bright enough and long enough—30 minutes is an average time—ideally in the morning.
The therapeutic standard is a light source that delivers 10,000 lux. That measure of illumination is like being outside on a sunny day. If you have dimmer bulbs, they won’t have an effect on your mood and energy because they aren’t “activating” enough.
You also want full-spectrum light, which mimics the electromagnetic spectrum of sunlight, and not fluorescent bulbs. There’s some evidence suggesting lower-intensity blue light is also effective for phototherapy for seasonal depressions.
Check with your doctor and insurance company about getting a prescription for a light box, since some portion of the cost may be reimbursable. Your doctor may also be able to recommend reputable manufacturers.
It’s recommended to use light therapy at the same time every day if you can, for the same amount of time. See if you can get yourself into a morning routine using the light box. Morning works best because we have a built-in biological structure in the brain—the main timekeeper for our body clock—that’s designed to make us more active in response to growing daylight.
You’ll want to set up the light box as an indirect light source. Typically you’d get up in the morning and catch up on the news or check your emails with the light box set up several feet away. For example, you could have it on the kitchen counter while you’re eating breakfast at the table.
Are there risks to using a light box?
People who have glaucoma, cataracts, or certain other eye conditions are advised against phototherapy. That is true of some skin conditions as well, or if you have a history of skin cancer. Antibiotics and some anti-inflammatory medications can make your skin more sensitive to exposure from a light box or sunlight.
The question of whether blue-spectrum light increases the risk of age-related macular degeneration has not been settled. If you have concerns, you may want to consult an ophthalmologist.
For eye health, don’t stare directly into the bright light and don’t get too close to the light source. If you’re squinting, feel discomfort, or develop headaches, chances are you have the light too close.
People whose seasonal depressions are part of an undiagnosed bipolar disorder may be triggered to hypomania or mania. As a precaution, educate yourself and those around you on the common symptoms of elevated mood and stay on the lookout for warning signs, perhaps by using a mood tracking chart or app.
Printed as “Ask the Doctor: Let there be light,” Fall 2019
The post Ask the Doctor: Tis the Season for Light Therapy appeared first on hopetocope.com | Hope To Cope With Anxiety & Depression.
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