In addition the lack of sunlight which so many experience in the winter results for some in a "winter depression" known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD. A less serious form of this condition is known as the winter doldrums. Fortunately, both conditions respond dramatically to light therapy within 4 to 7 days.
Light stimulates a tiny gland located in the center of the brain called the pineal gland. The pineal gland regulates the timing of sleep, hormone production, body temperature and many other important biological functions.
The pineal gland secretes melatonin, also known as the "hormone of darkness". Decreased light stimulates the secretion of melatonin, (which causes drowsiness) while bright daylight switches off the secretion of melatonin. Some studies have shown that SAD sufferers have increased levels of melatonin during the daytime hours.
Light promotes the production of serotonin, a neuropeptide that elevates mood. In fact, modern antidepressants like Prozac work by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain.
SAD usually starts in the late autumn or early winter. An estimated two to five percent of the population are affected. Symptoms of SAD include increased desire to sleep, extreme lethargy, depression, increased appetite, weight gain, desire to withdraw from the world, lowered sex drive and cravings for sweet and starchy foods.
Five times as many people may suffer from the "winter doldrums" with the same symptoms as SAD but not as severe.
SAD usually lasts five months (November through February). The incidence of SAD is still greatest in the North (Alaska, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Yukon and NWT).
In women, light therapy can also be used to as part of a treatment for PMS and to help regulate menstrual cycles. Light therapy can also be useful for shift workers and jet lag. In addition, it can be used to enhance the action of antidepressant drugs.
Natural sunlight and full spectrum light contain the full rainbow of colours from red to green to violet. Cool white florescent lights have a predominance of red and yellow light and a deficiency of blue light. Blue light helps the eye see better detail.
You can increase your exposure to natural lights as part of your daily routine. For example you can sit by an open window for 30 to 60 minutes a day and exercise outside whenever possible. An alternative is buy a portable full spectrum light box.
Both SAD and the winter doldrums are usually treated by using either light boxes, light visors or the newly developed light glasses. The effect usually occurs within days, certainly within the first week.
The mechanism of action is unknown but likely due to psychological as well as physiological effects of light. There may be a placebo effect as well.
Three studies published in the October 1998 Archives of Psychiatry have shown convincing evidence of the effectiveness of bright light boxes used in the morning to successfully treat SAD when compared to placebo.
The usual recommendation is to sit close to a specially designed light box ($200 to $400) or desk lamp ($230) with eyes open for 30 to 60 minutes in the morning. The light box consists of 4 to 8 high intensity cool florescent light blubs installed in a box and set up on a table or desk top. Side effects include eyestrain, headache and insomnia.
An inexpensive alternative is to wear a special visor hat ($130) or glasses ($90) for 30 to 60 minutes in the morning. The hat and glasses have a device that gives off dim red light. that seems to produce less eyestrain and other side effects, but is as effective as the white light.
An ordinary bedside lamp may be used to help regulate irregular or long menstrual cycles. Use a lamp with a 100 watt bulb that disperses light on the ceiling for nights 14 to 17 of the cycle.
Light boxes are available from Northern Light Technologies at 1-800-263-0066 as well as from many other reputable companies. The light visor hat and glasses are available from Health Light Inc. 1-800-265-6020. In Illinois, under the direction of talented author and health consultant, Linaya Hahn's Light for Health offers a full selection of full spectrum light boxes and bulbs at 1-800-468-1104 or 847-459-4455 fax 847-459-4492 website:www.lightforhealth.com
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