How light therapy can help to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Are you feeling SAD or do you know someone who is just not themselves and are feeling down? It may feel embarrassing and uncomfortable to visit a GP to talk about mental health issues but no-one should suffer in silence. Although mental health is a sensitive topic it’s not something you should ignore because it can really affect your overall health.

You should know that there are treatments available for SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) which do not include anti-depressants. One of them is a SAD light therapy which I am going to talk about in this article but first, let’s look at what SAD syndrome is and its symptoms.

What is SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is a form of depression that is more common in winter when days are shorter and dark and the weather is gloomy. It doesn’t help that most of us work indoors which means that we don’t receive the amount of light we should and this disrupts our body clock. 

Your body uses sunlight to time various important functions, such as when you wake up, so lower light levels during the winter may disrupt your body clock and lead to symptoms of SAD. (NHS)

People who suffer from SAD tend to have higher levels of melatonin, a hormone that makes you feel sleepy. Another hormone called serotonin also plays a role in SAD – this hormone affects your mood, appetite, and sleep and a lack of sunlight may lead to lower serotonin levels, which is linked to feelings of depression.

SAD symptoms

People with SAD may suffer from the following symptoms:

  • A persistent low mood
  • A loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of despair, guilt, and worthlessness
  • Feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
  • Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight

SAD treatments

There is a wide range of treatments available for SAD syndrome but the main ones are: 

  • talking therapies, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) or counselling 
  • SAD light therapy – where a special lamp called a lightbox is used to simulate exposure to sunlight
  • lifestyle changes (exercise, diet)
  • antidepressants

As a strong advocate of natural treatments, I am against antidepressants but I understand that some people do need them in order to get better.

Personally, I would take antidepressants only as a last resort and try other therapies first. If you think you have a SAD disorder and need a treatment you should, of course, discuss your options with your GP first. SAD light therapy is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) but it is not usually available on the NHS.

How SAD light therapy can help

Some studies have shown that light therapy can be an effective treatment for SAD syndrome because it increases your exposure to light during the winter months. Light from an ordinary light bulb (200-500 Lux) is not sufficient but the light emitted from a specially designed Lightbox at an intensity of 10000 Lux has been found to be effective in up to 85% of diagnosed cases.

Exposure to very bright light for an average of 20-30 minutes suppresses the brain’s secretion of melatonin and hence decreases the feelings of lethargy, dullness, and sleep.

Bright light therapy is beneficial for everybody, not only for those who suffer from SAD. You can also benefit if:

  • you suffer from sleep disorders
  • you are a woman and suffer from postpartum depression and pre-menstrual syndrome
  • you just want to boost your morale and energy levels
  • you are a frequent flyer and regularly suffer from jet lag
  • you are an employee who works shifts
  • you have chronic fatigue

Bright light therapy in the early morning indeed helps to realign your internal body clock, which in turn helps you to obtain a “get-up-and-go” feeling and ultimately helps you to complete your tasks throughout the day.