What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Light Therapy?

The winter months are full of beautiful things that many of us in colder regions look forward to – the first snowfall, skiing, hot chocolate and cozy log fires. But, what we gain in winter nostalgia, we lose in sunlight, and what we often don’t recognize is the affect this can have on our mood.

For some people, this “winter funk” may be an indicator of a type of depression, called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Symptoms for SAD include the usual symptoms of depression, with a seasonal pattern for at least two years, and the absence of non-seasonal episodes.

According to WebMD, anyone can get SAD, but it seems to be more common in:

  • People who live in regions where winter days are very short or there are significant changes in the amount of daylight between seasons.
  • Women.
  • People between the ages of 15 and 55. The risk of getting SAD for the first time goes down as you age.
  • Family history of SAD.

Treatment for SAD is similar to treatment for depression, including talk therapy, and in some cases, anti-depressant medication. However, another form of treatment for SAD is light therapy.

In winter months, when our exposure to sunlight is limited, our internal clock and brain chemicals can become disregulated, causing symptoms of SAD. Light therapy is the use of artificial sunlight, which is said to aid in resetting the internal clock and jump starting the firing of mood regulating chemicals – improving sleep patterns and lifting mood. Light boxes are best used in the morning for 15-30 minutes during breakfast (use of light boxes at night can actually disrupt sleep patterns).

There are many benefits of light therapy, one being its relative inexpensive cost (about $75 per light box). In addition, clinical research suggests that in some cases light therapy improves SAD symptoms after only a few sessions. This treatment is also preferred due to its low risk of side effects.

Although light boxes may not be the most effective treatment option for everyone or every case, it surely is a low risk alternative worth a try. For more information on seasonal affective disorder, go to the PubMed website. To read more on light therapy, visit the Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Light therapy should not be used in replacement of your current treatment plan. Treatment plans should be developed by a mental health professional. Ask your therapist or doctor to find out whether a light box is right for you.