Seasonal affective disorder: light therapy to the rescue

Fall is marching steadfastly forward. While some are impervious to the ever-shorter days, many people are affected by the reduced daylight. It is estimated that nearly three percent of all Canadians suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and that eighteen percent suffer from the winter blues, a condition with the same symptoms as SAD, but to a less debilitating degree. Among other symptoms, affected individuals present with depressed mood, fatigue, reduced libido, increased appetite, an excessive need for sleep and difficulty getting up in the morning.

One effective treatment of SAD is light therapy, which involves exposure to a special light device for at least 30 minutes a day. It is thought that exposure to light causes biochemical changes to the brain and helps improve mood.

To benefit from light therapy, daily exposure to light of a specific spectrum and intensity is required. The light intensity should be at least 2,000 lux. To give you an idea of what that means, the intensity of a well-lit office is between 300 and 500 lux, while a cloudy day offers about 2,000 lux. The recommended therapy is usually a light exposure of 10,000 lux at eye level for 30 minutes a day. During that time, individuals can go about their usual activities if they remain by the lamp.

Phototherapy lamps can be purchased without a doctor’s prescription. They are available in pharmacies, superstores and through certain websites. There are many models of different shapes, sizes and light intensity. They range in price from $100 to $500.

Having to start the day when it is still pitch black is a daily challenge for some people. However, there is a type of alarm clock called a dawn simulator that could help them feel better. These devices imitate the sunrise and serve as an alarm clock, but instead of waking you suddenly with an obnoxious buzzer or a radio host’s voice, it wakes you gently by starting to light the room a half-hour before the programmed wakeup time, when the light intensity reaches its peak. Dawn simulation does not work in the same way as phototherapy, because the light intensity is not high enough, but it can help make mornings a bit more pleasant for workers and students who must get up when it is still dark out.

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