Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It is estimated that between four and six percent of the general population are affected by SAD, with women affected by the condition out numbering men by a ration of four to one (http://www.clevelandclinic.org/health/health-info/docs/1400/1484.asp?index=6412). For people living with Seasonal Affective Disorder, the months spanning from mid to late fall through early to mid spring can be accompanied by a host of myriad complaints including, but not limited to, general malaise, fatigue, lack of motivation, change in interpersonal relationships, decreased energy, problems awakening in the morning, depression, irritability, increased appetite, weight gain, lack of interest in preferred activities and, in extreme cases, suicidal ideation.
While Seasonal Affective Disorder occurs in all latitudes, the geographic regions in which most cases occur are those farthest north and farthest south of the equator, corresponding to the regions which experience the greatest decrease in sunlight hours during the winter months.
Sunlight is necessary for the photosynthesis of Vitamin D in the body. Aside from various physical benefits to the body afforded by the photosynthesis of Vitamin D by sunlight, the process also has a profound effect on the mental outlook and emotion well being of the individual. Vitamin D helps the brain to produce serotonin. Deficits of serotonin levels in the brain often result in negative results in the depleted individual such as lethargy, depression, and irritability. Unfortunately, because of the necessity of the process of photosynthesis of Vitamin D for the production of serotonin, oral or injection Vitamin D treatments for serotonin deficient patients are largely inefficient for the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
There is one therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder that has been shown to be effective with no reported adverse affects when utilized correctly. Light therapy can simulate the effects of sunlight as captured through the visual cortex, causing the brain to convert Vitamin D into serotonin and thereby alleviating the depressive effects that the dark winter months can have on the body. Through the use of high-powered lamps (10,000 LUX) that utilize phototherapy rays, which mimic the rays that the sun uses to convert Vitamin D into precious serotonin, light therapy lamps can drastically alleviate the effects of decreased sunlight due to seasonal changes on people susceptible to Seasonal Affective Disorder. Furthermore, light therapy lamps come equipped with a heavy, specially designed shields that protect the user from adverse effects affiliated with prolonged sunlight exposure like sunburn and skin cancer.
Most light therapy products are used in increments of 20 to 30 minute spans, with 60 minutes recommended as the absolute limit of safe usage. The cost effectiveness of light therapy, when compared to long-term use of medication, electroconvulsive therapy (occasionally utilized for SAD and other depressive disorders), and counseling is also an important factor. Most light therapy lamp companies have a model available which sells for less than $300.00. Lamps more expensive than that generally have other qualities, like portability or alarm clock functions, which, while convenient for some, do not affect the quality of the therapy.
There have been some reports of overuse of light therapy, with some occurrences of mania and prolonged euphoria, from utilizing the therapy for time spans longer than recommended. Some sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder become so encouraged by the positive benefits of the therapy and are so relieved by the lessening of the effects of the disorder that they sometimes over do the amount of time they spend in front of the lights. Misuse of light therapy can be particularly prevalent in far northern latitudes like Alaska and Northern Canada, however, with proper utilization, light therapy can be an effective and safe treatment option for Seasonal Affective Disorder with fewer side effects than other treatments for depressive disorders such as antidepressant medications and electroconvulsive therapy.
Light therapy is a viable, cost effective option for people afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder. When utilized as directed, it is a safe method of alleviating those “winter blues” that affect such a large portion of the world’s population.