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Using Light Therapy to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

Posted Oct 21 2009 10:02pm

For a girl who hates winter as much as I do, moving to the Land of Eternal Winter (a.k.a. Minnesota, The State That Might As Well Be Canada) may not have been the best idea. While I love snow and adore Christmas, the combination of super-cold temps and very short days have a drastic effect on my mood. My problem first started in Seattle where while it doesn't have the Dementor's Kiss-esque cold that Minnesota does, it is far enough north to have precious few daytime hours - hours that are besmirched by constant cloud cover. Come October, I'd feel the anxiety begin to ramp up every day around dusk and an inexplicable irritation with every member of my household. November brought zombie-eyed apathy and a fierce desire to sit in the one warm spot in our house and not move, causing me to neglect basic necessities like laundry and keeping a kid from shoving red craft balls up his nose that could only be removed by a doctor with a special tool (he wanted to be Rudolph, see). By December, unless the kids need something I'm pretty much living full-time in front of said heating vent and craving simple carbs. And by January I'm fully and officially depressed. I have SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), a depressive state brought on by the lack of light in the wintertime that afflicts millions of people worldwide.

Last year I attempted to prevent the onset of my SAD by taking vitamin D supplements, a tactic that while certainly didn't hurt, failed to provide a significant improvement. In the past I have tried antidepressants which did lift the veil of depression but at the expense of some rather strange side effects (gotta say I kinda miss those crazy Cymbalta dreams!). It also seems silly to me to start taking a drug every year in December only to drop it cold turkey in April when the sun comes out, as I inevitably do. I've also tried other remedies for depression like fish oil supplements and exercise, the latter of which works beautifully. Except that I can't do it 24 hours a day ( not that I haven't tried! )

Despite a solid body of positive research on the subject, the one thing I haven't tried yet is bright light therapy, mostly due to the pricey nature of most official SAD lights. But this year I found a deal on with this Verilux model and so my Christmas has come early: My (SAD) Happy Light arrived today!

It's hard not to judge a product by the box it comes in and so when Fed Ex dropped it off this very rainy and gloomy afternoon, I was struck with two impressions:
1. This sucker is big. Huge, actually. I have it set up next to my computer and it dwarfs my CPU.
2. The warning says very prominently "Do not use on the genital areas." Do I even want to know why that warning was necessary? No, no I do not.

According to the directions, you are supposed to sit in front of it - but not looking directly into it - for 30 minutes to 2 hours a day depending on the distance you are from the light and how much light you need. It works by tricking your brain into thinking you are in the bright summer sunshine by sending a barrage of visible light into your eyes. You are supposed to do it first thing in the morning to avoid messing up your circadian rhythms. Undeterred (and with my pants firmly on), I plugged it in and switched it on.

I now know what it must be like to watch nuclear bomb testing. Or to attend a Kanye West concert and bask in his self-professed light. It was practically blinding. This baby is packing 10,000 lux (the average indoor light is less than 1,000 lux) - the amount designated by scientists as the base therapeutic level for SAD. It's like my own personal spotlight; all I need now is a wind machine and I'm set!

Frequently Asked Questions About Light Therapy

Can't I just tan instead?
According to, the answer is no. Even though many tanning salons (falsely) advertise their product as cure for wintertime blues, tanning beds, which use UV rays (not part of the visible spectrum unless you are a honey bee), actually have no therapeutic light effect - especially if you wear the goggles - and they also cause skin cancer and cataracts. Bad news all around.

I have a history of skin cancer, can I still use a SAD therapy light?
Absolutely. The therapy lights, while very bright, are only comprised of the visible spectrum and have very few UV rays which are generally blocked by a filter on the lamp. The therapy lights work by helping you take in more bright light through your eyes; contrary to popular belief they are not supposed to work through your skin. They will not give you a tan. The therapy will be unaffected whether or not you wear sunscreen.

What should I look for in a SAD therapy light?
There is a lot of confusion on this one with many products from small incandescent "natural light" bulbs to large fluorescent blue floor lamps being marketed as such.
  • Choose a Light Box With 10,000 Lux of Illumination. Light boxes offering fewer lux are not as effective.
  • Use a UV Filter. Most light boxes use fluorescent bulbs, which emit a small amount of UV radiation. Your light box should have a UV filter or diffusing screen to protect your skin and eyes.
  • Opt for Soft, White Lights. Full spectrum lights produce greater amounts of blue light (which can harm the eyes) and UV radiation.
Are there any side effects?
It's a very very bright light so you are advised not to use it at night as it may cause insomnia. Headaches and eye strain were also listed as potential problems although I think those could be avoided by not staring into the light itself. If you have known eye disease or other eye problems, you should consult a doctor first. There was also that whole genital thing although I'm not exactly sure what effect that is supposed to prevent.

How much do they cost?

Most medical models seem to be around $400 (for an ugly lamp?! I know.) but cheaper ones can be found. You just have to be careful that they still meet all the criteria. The one I found on Amazon was $175. Still steep but I told my husband that was all I wanted for Christmas. You can also find used ones on eBay and Craigslist. Some insurance providers will cover the cost if you get your doctor to write you an actual prescription for one (although my insurance wouldn't - jerks.)

Does it really work?
The research supports it. As for myself, I have only used it for one day and whether it was just the placebo effect or the light itself, I did feel like it made a definite difference in my mood and energy. The pamphlet said to use it for 10 consecutive days before the full effect would be achieved so I'll certainly let you know how it goes from here. For once, I am really hopeful going into fall!

Anyone else get SAD every winter? Have you tried a happy light? Any Canadians want to tell me to stop whining until I've experienced one of their winters?
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