Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects an estimated 10 million Americans, with another 10-20 perfect experiencing mild symptoms. Brought on by sun-poor winters, this disorder mimics the impact of depression and can have a genuinely negative effect on the mind and body. Thankfully, there are some natural ways to support the body throughout the winter months, and prevent SAD without the need for medication. Today we will explore seasonal affective disorders and focus on light therapy as a way to reverse and prevent it in the future.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of clinical depression that is triggered by seasonal patterns. It is also known as winter depression since it’s during these colder and shorter days that symptoms generally hit hardest. Although symptoms can begin to creep up in September and last until April, the worst symptoms occur typically from December until February.
Although there is no scientific consensus for its cause, the roots of SAD are likely the lack of sunshine and subsequent circadian rhythm disruption. Shorter days with less UV has a drastic impact on just about every human system. Our body relies on cues from the sun to set circadian rhythm (our internal body clock), which influences our hormones.
Traditionally, our ancestors adapted their lifestyles to the seasons. This adaptation would naturally support circadian health and likely prevent the symptoms of SAD. By living our modern lives and not adapting to the change in the weather—many people are forced to wake up before the sun rises in the winter, often working until after it has set. Getting minimal exposure to the outdoors (especially in winter), and living at odds with the earth’s natural light cycles, wreaks havoc on our natural rhythm and health.
Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder: Symptoms of SAD include:
The symptoms do vary from person to person and generally peak during the coldest winter months. However, a general idea of what SAD can trigger includes:
- Low energy
- Poor sleep quality
- Trouble falling asleep
- Apathy (lack of enthusiasm for life)
- Decreased libido
- Easily distracted
- Feelings of depression
- Change in appetite (often sugar cravings)
Generally, it takes two consecutive winters with these symptoms for a medical doctor to diagnose their patient with seasonal affective disorder. The remedy is typically pharmaceutical medications, which means you have to wait at least two winters to feel relief, only to be bombarded by side effects of the drugs. Luckily, there are many great natural ways to combat SAD without pharmaceutical intervention.
Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder
There are many natural ways to boost your mood during those winter months, including regular exercise, getting quality sleep, taking a vitamin D supplement, eating well, and getting outside (despite the cold!). However, one technique that is often overlooked and has a vast body of scientific literature to support is the use of light therapy.
With its high success rate of 60 to 80 percent of people, light therapy is a low-cost and easy solution to a big problem. Without any harmful side-effects (when used correctly), light therapy may be the best option when it comes to reversing and preventing seasonal affective disorder, as well as other conditions that are rooted in circadian rhythm disruptions.
Conditions that Light Therapy is Used for
- Seasonal affective disorder
- Jet lag
- Sleep disorders
- Circadian Rhythm imbalances
- Adjusting to shifting work
Light therapy works by signaling the body that it is morning/ day time. Our body operates like a symphony, directed by the sun. Our sleep/ wake cycles (known as circadian rhythm) are triggers by the rising and setting of the sun. When it rises, stimulating hormones keep us alert, and when it sets sleepy hormones (like melatonin), help us fall asleep.
When there is a disruption in this cycle year-round (like shift work), or we fight the body’s natural desire to sleep longer in the winter (SAD), the lightbox can replace that morning signal that would typically occur due to sun exposure.
Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder: How To Use A Light Therapy Device
Consulting with your healthcare practitioner is always useful to tailor a protocol to your own individual needs, but a general idea of a protocol for light therapy to combating SAD looks like:
- Using the device in the morning, within the first hour of waking up
- Use it for a duration of 20 to 30 minutes
- Place the device at a distance of about 16 to 24 inches from the face
- Keep your eyes open, without looking directly at the light (reading a book during this time is a great idea!)
Achieving successful results with light therapy also depends on the type of light-emitting device used. Ideally, you want 10,000 lux light for that 20 to 30-minute session. A lower lux lightbox may require you to spend more time exposed to the light.
Note that some conditions can be triggered by light therapy, including bipolar disease. Since some lightboxes contain UV, be mindful of skin sensitivities that can occur from certain medications or herbal supplements.
What About Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy harnesses the healing power of natural light, which stimulates your cells to regenerate faster and produce more energy, resulting in a wide range of clinically-documented health benefits.
A light therapy device uses LEDs to deliver doses of safe, therapeutic red and near infrared light to your body. It’s completely non-invasive, painless, and natural. Most people find light therapy to be pleasurable and experience at least some acute boost in mood and energy after each session.
The Right Wavelengths Make All the Difference
Red and near infrared light therapy uses a very specific range of wavelengths within the natural light spectrum (660nm to 850nm). A wealth of clinical research shows this range of light is highly beneficial at the cellular level. Light therapy delivers these therapeutic wavelengths without harmful heat or UV rays.
How Does Red Light Therapy Work?
Red light therapy works at the cellular level. Photons of therapeutic red and near infrared light are absorbed by the mitochondria in your cells, producing 2 major effects:
- More ATP energy: Light therapy increases adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy produced during cellular respiration that powers your cells (and indeed, all life on earth). More ATP means more energy and healthier function.
- Enhanced cell signaling: Specific wavelengths of light help to create a better oxidative environment in your cells. This results in the activation of numerous intracellular signaling pathways, increased protein synthesis, and enhanced cell cycle progression.
Clinically-Proven Health Benefits
Red light therapy has been studied extensively. There’s a wealth of clinical research that shows numerous health benefits, with virtually no side effects. Here’s a sampling of documented benefits:
- Diminishes age spots, fine lines, & wrinkles
- Stimulates production of collagen and elastin
- Increases blood circulation
- Speeds muscle recovery to boost training & athletic performance
- Reduces joint pain & inflammation
- Speeds healing of wounds & injuries
- Boosts natural melatonin production & promotes healthy sleep
- Increases testosterone production in men
- Enhances mood, cognitive function, & mental clarity
Safe, Non-Invasive, Chemical & Drug Free
Red light therapy is safe, non-invasive, uses no chemicals or drugs, and is not associated with harmful side effects. It simply harnesses the natural healing and rejuvenating benefits of a specific range of therapeutic light and delivers this targeted energy at a higher rate than the sun—without harmful UV rays. A major 2013 study conducted by Harvard and MIT researchers praised light therapy for its “noninvasive nature and almost complete absence of side effects.”
The Joovv Difference
Joovv offers the greatest power, size, efficiency, and convenience in light therapy. Joovv’s modular design can be fully customized for your individual treatment needs, and their medical-grade LEDs deliver consistent dosages with the most clinically-effective wavelengths of natural light.
Relax with Calm.
Light therapy devices can be beneficial for naturally alleviating the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder and other circadian rhythm disruption disorders. Maximum results are generally achieved with a 10,000 lux lamp, used for 20-30 minutes in the first hour of waking. You want to expose your face to the device with eyes open, but not looking directly at the lamp. Using a light therapy lamp from fall to spring can have a drastic benefit on mood, and help prevent or reverse SAD in two weeks.
Brinkhuijsen, M, et al. “Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder and of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Reduced by Light Therapy.” Journal of Affective Disorders, vol. 74, no. 3, 2003, pp. 307–308., doi:10.1016/s0165-0327(03)00003-x.
Eagles, John M. “Light Therapy and Seasonal Affective Disorder.” Psychiatry, vol. 8, no. 4, 2009, pp. 125–129., doi:10.1016/j.mppsy.2009.01.005.
Ogrady, Jane T, et al. “Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2009, doi:10.1002/14651858.cd004516.pub2.
Privitera, Michael R., et al. “Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder in a Clinical Office Setting.” Journal of Psychiatric Practice, vol. 16, no. 6, 2010, pp. 387–393., doi:10.1097/01.pra.0000390757.19828.e0.