Light up the winter blues

1/12/2018  By HealthNews

January 12, 2018

If you have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), you're probably able to mark your calendar in anticipation of those months when depression symptoms strike - the same time every year.

While some people experience SAD in the summer, it usually occurs during seasons with shorter days. Most people begin to feel symptoms in September or October and feel better by April or May.

SAD is more common in women, and can also be seen in families, experienced by close relatives. Because its symptoms mirror other types of depression (or even hypothyroidism), if you suspect you might have SAD, the next step is to talk with your doctor.


A cat enjoys his owner's Ott light. (Photo: Jim, Cat: Mowser)

When we asked our colleagues for personal experiences with SAD they'd be willing to share, Critical Care NA-C Karen Scott graciously volunteered to answer our questions about how she copes with seasonal affective disorder. Scott is also a CPR Instructor with KVH Staff Development.

You use light therapy to help with SAD. What does your system look like?

I have two large 18" x 24" lights built just for SAD. I also have several portable Ott lights that are sold as full spectrum sewing/craft lights. Then there are the desk lamps with full spectrum florescent tubes. I have the big lights stacked in front of the exercise equipment. The endorphins from the workout boosts the light's effect. The other lights are at places I tend to sit, like the computer and the sewing machine.

Do you use light therapy all year, or just during particular seasons?

I use light therapy twice a day from Fall to early Spring. I know it is time to start light therapy when I feel the need to eat a lot and hibernate. This is usually mid- October to March, when it’s also too cold to bike to work.

Does a fluctuating work schedule aggravate SAD?

For me I would say yes, schedule is everything in managing SAD. Years ago I had a mostly night shift job with the US Department of Agriculture. SAD makes it really easy to sleep all day. The bright lights at my night job, though not full spectrum, helped me stay awake but it was still a strain on me. I had to take anti-depressants regularly on top of the light therapy.

What do you do for light therapy when you’re away from home?

I have a folding, portable Ott light I take with me.

What got you started with light therapy? How long have you been using it? 

I read about seasonal affective disorder in a science magazine in the late 1990's. At that time I had clinical depression that was much worse in the winter than at other times of the year. The scientific evidence and explanation of the physiology of the efficacy of light therapy had me convinced that it would be worth a try.

The early full spectrum light therapy boxes were big and heavy and had to be special ordered but were worth it. I followed the parameters recommended in the studies including light brightness, distance from the light, time of day and duration.

I discussed this therapy with my physician, Dr. Carr, and she whole heartedly supported light therapy, even recommending the twice a day regimen I still use. I do not need anti-depressants as long as I follow a strict schedule of light therapy, regular exercise and regular sleep time.

What would you tell someone who is skeptical about trying light therapy to combat depression?

Read the science and borrow a full spectrum bright light to try for a month to see if symptoms improve.  Following the recommended light brightness and length of time of 15 to 30 minutes is worth working into a busy morning schedule.

Related:

9 subtle signs of seasonal affective disorder (Inc.com)

SAD treatment: choosing a light therapy box (Mayo Clinic)

Duluth sisters want to help you fight the winter blues - on a bus (Star Tribune)

Managed by Kittitas Valley Healthcare, HealthNews does not provide medical advice. For medical advice, please see your healthcare provider.