How Artificial Light Cures Seasonal Affective Disorder

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seasonal affective disorder

So the days are getting shorter and it feels like you're going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark…It's depressing, but does feeling blue in wintertime necessarily mean you have seasonal affective disorder? And what exactly is seasonal affective disorder? AND is there a cure?

Now, in case you think you have SAD (seasonal affective disorder), I'm not going to make you get to the bottom of the blog to get your answer: there's no cure, but light therapy makes it a lot better!

But you may be wondering…Is the problem that our bodies crave sunlight and vitamin D, or is the problem that shorter days and longer nights mess with our body's internal clock? Or is it just that we like to be outside, and it being dark and cold all the time takes a toll on our outdoor activities?

Well, surprisingly…Scientists don't know for sure!

They do think that less sunlight in winter has many physiological effects, from interrupting the body's usual circadian rhythms (that internal clock of yours!), to making your eyes less sensitive to light, too messing with your serotonin levels. But scientists aren't exactly sure why SAD affects some people more than others.

If you feel sad and empty when winter hits, or if you find your cravings getting out of control during this time, or you just feel like you have no energy until spring comes around and the days start stretching longer again…You might have SAD. Personally, I would have never thought about out-of-control holiday cravings being caused by anything except for the overabundance of Thanksgiving and Christmas treats. But if your cravings are crazy around this time, it could be SAD instead!!

So what can you do about it? Well, if you can't bring yourself to the light (by going on vacay), then bring the light to you! The way you do this is by using a special light box. Basically, when light is bright enough, it stimulates cells in your retina that then send a message to your hypothalamus that it's daytime. This is what controls your circadian rhythms.

But, the light has to be bright enough, or those cells won't get triggered. I guess that's kind of a good thing, or else our brain would be thinking that every artificial light in our house is sunlight. Of course, our brain knows better, because that light is nowhere near as bright as the sun.

So you're probably wondering, how the heck do I get a light as bright as the sun? Well, it's called a "light box" , also known as "Light Therapy Light" and it's just…very bright!

Image credit: Health.com

Just like with the sun, you want to make sure you never look directly into it. The light box isn't still quite as bright as a nice sunny day. A sunny day is about 50,000 lux of light, and a light box is about 10,000 lux of light. But that's enough to alleviate symptoms of seasonal affective disorder!

Honestly, if you're feeling even a bit of winter blues, I recommend investing in a light box and seeing what happens, and consulting a doc as well.

However, there may be slightly more to it than that. Kari Leibowitz, writer for the Atlantic, published an article about her stay in the town of Tromsø, Norway, where all winter long the sun doesn't rise. Yep, that's total dark, all winter long.

Now, you would expect the residents to be going crazy, right? And that is what Kari expected when she began her research for the article. But the more she talked to the residents, she found out that, yes, some of them did use a light box, or take cod liver oil pills, but the most common factor between everyone was that they just playing didn't seem upset about not seeing the sun. In fact, they looked forward to the winter dark, what they called the Polar Night.

It was just a fun thing, where people became even more social, had lots of festivals, bars hopping at 2 a.m. every night…So, as Kari noticed, it seemed a lot more about people's OUTLOOK. She remembered how in her New Jersey hometown people would NEVER be looking forward to winter and would always be dreading it.

My takeaway point for you here isn't meant to be, "Just make the best of it," because I know it's more complicated than that. But it goes to show that looking at something in a pessimistic vs. optimistic way does make a huge difference.

Maybe the most important part of not getting SAD is, well, not getting sad…To try your very best to think positive, concentrate on being grateful for what you do have, and surrounding yourself with loved ones!

Harvard

The Atlantic

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