Ryan Sheridan, NP
Light Therapy: An Integrative Treatment Approach for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Updated: Jan 10
Have you ever felt a little down or depressed a certain time of year? You're not alone! There is a seasonal component to mood that is related to how many hours of daylight we get. Light therapy is an integrative treatment option for those with seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is essentially depression that is present based on the time of year, typically the winter months that have shorter daylight hours.
Light therapy is a treatment option for SAD that elicits our body's natural response to sunlight, resulting in an improvement of SAD symptoms.
Integrative approaches for SAD include light therapy, but other treatments like medication, supplementation, therapy, and exercise and nutrition planning may be helpful.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
In a nutshell, seasonal affective disorder is depression that comes and goes with the season. Most people with the disorder notice a significant change in mood with a particular season. Typically the winter, colder months that afford us less sunlight and outdoor time, though the opposite has been reported. Seasonal affective disorder actually affects up to a third of the population, however many folks are not severely impacted.
How is seasonal affective disorder treated?
This can be tricky – and can be well treated with an integrative approach. You may know that most antidepressants take a while to get into full swing - most taking four to six weeks to get working. This is a problem for someone who only needs a few months of treatment at a given time. Sure, a medication like bupropion (Wellbutrin) is an option – but instead, what if we address the root cause instead with something like… light therapy!
What is light therapy?
Light therapy is the use of a bright light that mimics the sun for our bodies (note: this doesn’t include UV radiation, so it is safe). Basically, light therapy is a bright light that someone uses in the morning – really is it that simple. These devices are fairly inexpensive, around $20-$30.
When the light hits your eyes, it triggers all kinds of biological responses including hormones
production. In the winter, we are outside less so we get less light. For some, this messes with the production of key chemicals that impact mood and even sleep. Sleep? Yes sleep! When we take light into our eyes first thing in the morning, that light triggers the our bodies to stop sending out the chemicals make us sleepy and instead sends the chemicals that make us awake. The sooner you get up and have light in your eyes the better – ideally no later than 30 minutes from waking. Then, when it’s the end of the day, our bodies will be better primed to hit the hay (assuming you have your sleep hygiene in order, but that’s another post).
For those who notice a seasonal component to their depressive symptoms, light therapy is among the very best treatments. Light therapy has no side effects and can start to improve symptoms in a few short days. I love these treatments, as opposed to medication, as a first intervention. That being said, some folks may need more support than light therapy alone.
How should I use light therapy for seasonal affective disorder?
Proper use of the light is important. The light should be at least 10,000 lux in brightness. I recommend an LED lamp to reduce energy costs and for the longevity of the lamp. Not using the light properly can reduce how effective it is. Positioning is key! You don’t need to sit right next to the light, but it shouldn’t be across the room either. A few feet away – three to six feet at most. A great place to locate it is on the kitchen counter in the morning so you can use it while getting ready for the day. You want the light to be shining toward you, not away from you. It will be bright, and may even annoying at first, but you’ll get used to it! Here is a link to one on Amazon, can't hurt to give it a try!
As we said earlier, it is important that the light directly hit your eye. And remember, the light therapy should be a part of your morning routine, ideally first thing in the morning for about 20 to 30 minutes. Also, you should avoid using doing the light in the evening as it can be activating and disruptive to your sleep.
It is always a good idea to talk to your mental health provider to make sure there aren’t other concerns that need to be addressed. Exercise, nutrition, and sleep can all impact seasonal affective disorder, so be sure not to neglect any of those aspects just because it is cold out!
If you have questions about integrative psychiatry, are interested in seeking care, or are interested in learning about how to practice integrative psychiatry, please reach out to me via email at email@example.com. Feel free to repost this blog, just give me a backlink!