Winter. It’s a word which may cause instant anxiety for many. The prospect of having to scrape ice off windshields or shovel snow from driveways is daunting enough. However, the fall and winter months bring increasingly overcast skies, resulting in fewer hours of daylight. The situation is further compounded by the fact that, in late October, clocks are turned back one hour as we return to Standard time. Many, because of this lack of light, may occasionally experience the winter blues. However, certain individuals may experience the winter blues more acutely, and fall victim to the depressive malady known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Studies have shown that SAD affects three to 10 percent of the population. In North America, the condition appears to afflict women more often than men, four to one. Increasing northern latitude may have a direct correlation with the incidence of SAD, although this has not been conclusively shown. Typical symptoms and manifestations of SAD include lethargy, excessive sleepiness, overeating, craving of carbohydrates, and weight gain. A significant minority of people with SAD report the more typical vegetative symptoms of decreased appetite, sleep loss, and weight loss. These symptoms, in some cases, can last as long as five months.
In addition to accurate medical diagnosis and clinical care, diet and exercise may provide some relief from SAD, with pharmacotherapy for more severe cases. However, what appears to offer the most relief, is bright-light therapy.
Bright-light therapy involves the use of a specially designed lamp that produces an intense luminescence within the daylight spectrum. For optimal benefit, such a lamp should operate at an intensity of 10,000 lux. The light should consist of the full daylight spectrum or of white light, with filtering of ultraviolet light to avoid harmful effects on the eyes and skin. In addition, The Canadian Consensus Guidelines for the Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder states that individuals should be cautioned against using incandescent halogen light. These may carry a greater “blue-light hazard” if allowed to shine directly into the eyes.
Lamps that help alleviate SAD are available from various manufacturers in desk or floor lamps, light boxes, or visors. Ordinarily, the light delivered by a lamp-type device is used in an indirect manner, for reading or doing paperwork. Thirty minutes of daily exposure to a 10,000 lux lamp is suggested. Lamps that deliver light of lower intensity are also available, but require lengthier exposure to produce the same benefits as those that provide more intense light. Manufacturers of SAD lamps provide a recommended distance at which specific models should be used. Light therapy should begin in the early morning, at the time of awakening, to maximize its efficacy, although exposure at other times may be effective for some.
Light therapy has proven an effective method of relieving symptoms associated with SAD. It typically is the therapy of choice among physicians and other specialists. It is also used to relieve various circadian rhythm disruptions, such as those resulting from jet lag, shift work, and certain sleep disorders. Recent findings suggest that it may even be effective for alleviating non-seasonal related depression and other psychiatric disorders, including premenstrual depression, panic disorder, bulimia, alcoholism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and behavioral disorders related to dementia.
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