“Let the sun shine, Let the sun shine in. The sun shine in.”; “Happy is the bride the sun shines upon”; “The sun’ll come out tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun”… And if not you can get a nifty futuristic box to shine rays of depression lifting happiness through your eyes and into heart. What a world we live in. (Name the title of one of the songs quoted above and you’ll get $5 off any purchase at 877MyJuicer.com)
Now I’m not about to jump off the Coronado Bridge over a little lack of sunlight but I have to admit that even in beautiful San Diego, the setting of the sun at 4:30 in the afternoon saps my energy and depletes my world of just enough joy to be noticeable. I wouldn’t consider myself anything but a mild sufferer of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) but this condition is much more pervasive than you would think. It is estimated that 10 million are greatly affected in the United States alone and that another 10 to 20 percent experience symptoms of SAD less severely. Women are more affected than men overall and it is more common the farther North you are but this condition, especially when combined with pre existing depression, can be serious enough to greatly affect quality of life and in certain cases even result in hospitalization.
The precise cause of SAD isn’t known but most evidence suggests that it arises from abnormalities in how your body manages and matches its circadian (internal biological) rhythms to the 24-hour day. Specifically, the hormone melatonin—which helps control body temperature, hormone secretion and sleep and is produced in the brain mainly during the hours of darkness—is thought to play a major role in Seasonal Affective Disorder. Basically, during the low-light months of fall and winter, people with SAD produce so much more melatonin than normal that it can cause potentially debilitating symptoms of depression. The major treatment, therefore, is light because it can reduce symptoms by suppressing the brain’s production of melatonin and help regulate the body’s internal clock.
So, absent some miracle in changing the cycles of the galaxy, we’re forced to either hibernate, or rely on one slightly less impressive miracle of modern science; the light box. Light therapy or phototherapy, has been used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder since the early 1980s and many mental health professionals now consider it to be standard treatment for SAD. Now you can’t just pull up a chair to the brightest lamp in your house because light boxes, which contain powerful fluorescent bulbs or tubes, emit a type and intensity of light that isn’t found in normal household lighting. Light therapy mimics outdoor light and causes a biochemical change in your brain that lifts your mood. And it’s really very simple. Consult with a doctor to determine the right combination of intensity, duration and timing but on average, 30 minutes done first thing in the morning with a typical 10,000 lux light box will produce great results in a matter of days and at most a few weeks. In order for light therapy to work, the light must enter your eyes indirectly. You can’t get the same effect through skin exposure but you also shouldn’t look directly at the light box because it can damage your eyes. One of the great things about light therapy is that you can set the light box on a table or desk next to you while you read, watch television, have a conversation, work (we use the goLite BLU by Apollo Health around the office and it seems to make 5 o’clock come a bit faster) or simply meditate while looking out the window… into that bleak winter darkness (hopefully not).
If you’re pregnant or prefer to avoid medications but you feel something must be done for your depression, light therapy is a wonderful alternative. It has also been shown to positively affect obsessive-compulsive disorder, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, postpartum depression and some forms of insomnia but it should not be considered a replacement for standard treatment and you should always consult with a professional.
There are several other, natural ways of treating SAD and depression as well. Essential fatty acids (Omega 3s) from fish, flax, and some plants have been shown in some cases to be more effective than SSRI drugs for depression. A study at the University of British Columbia showed that supplementing with tryptophan (found in nutritional yeast or 5 HTP) and vitamin D3, along with morning light therapy, achieved a 64% improvement in SAD symptoms. St. John’s Wort is also extremely useful in treating SAD. This extract has been thoroughly researched as a natural anti-depressant and the studies show that St. John’s Wort produces improvements in anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances as well and without side effects.
Laugh! That’s right. Do whatever you have to do get those giggles going because it will stimulate endorphins—those pain relieving neurotransmitters that make us feel good. And of course exercise. A fast half hour walk at midday in those dark months can greatly improve your mood overall and combat SAD specifically because ultimately, there’s never a true replacement for the real sun. Despite some bad press around skin cancer and over exposure to UV rays, the benefits of Vitamin D are essential to health and happiness and one study even shows that the incidence of cancer due to a vitamin D deficiency is greater than that from UV exposure. As the early 20th century composer W. R. Williams wrote, “Everybody’s Happy When the Sun Shines”