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Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Last updated: October 14, 2021

Fall and winter bring many opportunities to celebrate the joy of the holidays. Unfortunately, the change in seasons also causes many to struggle with the winter blues, low energy, and feelings of sluggishness. 

What is SAD? 

Formally known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), these winter blues are characterized by depression that occurs around the same time every year.  

“Struggling with depressive thoughts during a particular season is more common than most realize,” says Angela Gurlik, MA, LPC, of ThedaCare Behavioral Health. “It’s estimated that about 5% of the population experiences symptoms of SAD, with some occasionally battling these symptoms during the summer.” 

SAD is typically associated with symptoms like: 

  • Feeling depressed most of the time
  • Lack of interest in doing things you used to enjoy 
  • Sluggishness or agitation 
  • Reduced levels of energy 
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness 
  • Being unable to focus 
  • Thoughts of suicide or self-harm 
  • Excessive daytime sleeping known as hypersomnia 
  • Craving carbohydrates and overeating 
  • Weight gain
  • Withdrawing from socializing 

Does Light Therapy Really Work for Treating SAD? 

Light therapy has become increasingly popular as a method for treating SAD. According to the National Institutes of Health, 60% to 80% of SAD sufferers have reported benefitting from light therapy.  

The success rate isn’t all that surprising when you consider how simple light therapy is to use.  

“Light therapy entails sitting close to a ‘light box’ that gives off bright light, mimicking natural outdoor light,” Gurlik says. 

Aside from SAD, light therapy is also used to treat dermatological conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis; jaundice in babies; and sleep disorders.

Many scientists theorize that the primary cause of winter SAD is the loss of sunlight that’s associated with the winter season. To help treat these symptoms, light therapy works by bringing back some of that light through use of a light box. 

For those who have tried other methods without success, such as psychotherapy or antidepressants, light therapy has proven to be a viable treatment option.  

How Do I Choose the Best Light Therapy Box? 

Selecting the right form of light therapy can be trickier than you’d think. Choosing the right kind is important to your health, Gurlik says.  

“Check whether the light is designed specifically for treating SAD,” she says. “Other types of light therapy are designed to treat skin conditions and could be harmful if used for the wrong purpose.”  

Next, Gurlik advises looking for a light box that emits both 10,000 lux — a measurement of light level intensity — and the full spectrum of bright white light. You’ll also want to verify that the lamp is labeled “UV free.” UV lights are not only unnecessary for therapeutic purposes, but could cause harm if exposure extends over a long period of time.   

In terms of size, a light surface of 12 inches by 18 inches is optimal. 

“Check the product dimensions before purchasing to ensure the light is large enough to be effective,” Gurlik says. “The larger the light surface, the more naturally you can move your head and still get optimal exposure to the light.” 

Last, but not least, choose a light you can easily incorporate into your daily routine. 

“If you have a few moments to spend relaxing in your favorite recliner, an adjustable floor lamp or table lamp may be the best fit for you,” Gurlik says. “There are even options you can attach to the visor in your vehicle so you can complete light therapy on your daily commute.” 

Need help determining which light box is best for you? This list can help point you in the right direction. 

What’s the Right Way to Use a Light Box? 

Once choose your light, it’s important to use it properly

To start, place your light therapy box to the left or right of your face, making sure it’s about an arm’s length away from you. Then point the light downward toward you at a 45-degree angle, imitating how the sun shines down on us. 

“Light therapy is especially convenient because it offers the option to multi-task,” Gurlik says. “You can have your coffee, read, check your email, play a game on your phone, or even use it at your desk while you work.”  

Light therapy is especially convenient because it offers the option to multi-task. 

Angela Gurlik, MA, LPC, ThedaCare Behavioral Health

What are the Side Effects of Light Therapy? 

Like any medical treatment, there are potentially mild and brief side effects from light therapy, including: 

  • Eye strain 
  • Jumpiness/jitteriness 
  • Headache 
  • Nausea 
  • Irritability 
  • Agitation 
  • Sweating 

Those with bipolar disorder should use light therapy with caution to avoid experiencing manic symptoms. 

“You’ll also want to exercise caution if you have any eye conditions or skin conditions, or if you are taking any medication that causes sensitivity to light, such as certain antibiotics,” Gurlik says. 

When Will I Begin Noticing the Benefits of Light Therapy? 

Though it may be tempting to use light therapy whenever you’re feeling down, Gurlik recommends a more consistent approach. 

“Use light therapy within one hour of waking every day, starting in early fall through and continuing through early spring,” she says. “Start with daily 20-minute sessions. You can work your way up to 60 minutes per morning based on your individual needs. Daily use is key. If you only use light therapy a couple times per week, it will be less effective.” 

Gurlik also encourages patience.

“If you don’t feel immediately better, don’t despair,” she says. “It takes time for light therapy to have an effect. You will likely notice an improvement in energy and mood within one to two weeks of daily use. Stay the course, and your symptoms should become easier to manage.” 

Do you suffer from SAD? Consult with your doctor to see if light therapy is the right treatment option for you. 

Tags: light therapy SAD Seasonal Affective Disorder winter blues

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