Shine a light on your Depression

Imagine struggling every Winter with low energy levels, poor concentration,gaining weight and feeling Depressed. Now imagine discovering all your troubles are unnecessary and are easily remedied by one simple thing.

A few decades ago, we saw the birth of Seasonal Affected Disorder and all of a sudden everyone knew that some people struggle in Winter due to a lack of light.

Then…we sort of forgot. The discussion stopped and rarely does Light Therapy ever get a mention except from word of mouth from enthusiastic users. What a shame this is the case because when we look at the terrible symptoms associated with SAD, we realise… it ain’t no different from Depression.

Lets take a look at some of the side effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder as listed by the Mayo Clinic:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

So we can see calling it Seasonal Affective Disorder actually hides something very important and that is we are dealing with a subset of Depression that is remedied by light.

The real question is, why does the light make us feel better?

The short answer is Serotonin. More light, increases the level of Serotonin in our brain and this helps us regulate our own Circadian Rhythm. It can also help us sleep better at night by increasing Melatonin production. As sleep disorders can compound any depressive symptoms, its important to find a therapy that can ensure a good nights sleep also.

So if you want to sleep at night, then have morning light.

How much light do I need?

To mediate the effects of SAD, you need to use a light box with a light value of 10,000 LUX for 30 minutes in the morning. I rarely see these lights for sale in local shops but Amazon stock a variety of them. There are two important factors to take into account:

Time – Works best in morning and the length of time you need to use it, depends on how far away you are.

Distance– If the Lux value of the light is 10,000 Lux at 3 inches from your face but you use it 6 inches away from your face then the Therapeutic usage time also changes from 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Detailed instructions are usually included with each light purchase. Just make sure the light is non UV and is of medical grade with the necessary 10,000lux.


SAD Lights may not just be for Winter

Ireland sucks, specifically the weather. The Romans name for Ireland was Hibernia, it meant ‘Land of Winter’. It is dark and dreary most of the year in Ireland. When it comes to sun, we really drew the short straw. Our rolling cloud coverage ensures that the amount of light we actually get year round, is minimal compared to other countries.

So we can be depressed all year round because of our shitty weather. After a series of several dark days, if your mood and concentration takes a dip and you start reaching for more caffeine or something sweet, maybe what you really needed to reach for is a lightbox.

If you are exercising regularly then this can mediate the effect of a lack of light as it has also been shown to increase Serotonin levels in the brain. More on exercise later.


Serotonin – Too Much of a good thing?

If you suffer from Major Depression or Bipolar Disorder, light therapy needs to be approached with care as the medications you are on may already be altering critical neurotransmitters such as Serotonin and altering this further may not have a desirable effect.  My advice is to consult your healthcare practitioner about starting therapy. That way, if there are changes for the better or worse, medications can be altered to suit.

Generally speaking, light therapy can compliment existing medication as evidenced in this trial combining  Fluoxetin(SSRI medication) and Light Therapy.

I believe the foundation of good mental health relies on a solid base of adequate light,enough exercise and a reasonably decent diet…oh and sleep!

As they all connect, its hard to pick and choose without running into trouble. As an example, think about when you are tired, you pick the easy options right?

The easy food, exercise..oh I will do it tomorrow! And if you play the daily ‘let’s caffeinate to the gills’ game, you might find it all kicking in around 11pm when sleep is now a distant friend. Welcome to the land of wired and tired whereby you are doomed to repeat the cycle again tomorrow.




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    • Hi Caroline, You need to be a little more careful as the light can encourage a manic cycle so spotting the early signs of mania can prevent it. Easing into the light under guidance is a good idea.

      A newer study showed that those with bipolar do better when light is introduced for only 30 minutes at midday and building up if necessary.