The Morning Call (Sunday)
A Beam to Brighten a Dark Day
Light-therapy lamps can offer relief from the winter blues.
THE DARKER WINTER season brings about melancholy in many of us, but this is no ordinary winter. With coronavirus outbreaks surging around the country and scuttling social activities, medical professionals are predicting a long winter for those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder and other forms of winter depression.
“People in many communities are being asked to stay indoors as much as possible,” said Dr. Zena Samaan, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at McMaster University in Ontario. “That goes against all the mental health advice we usually promote to people.”
If shorter days in the winter affect you, you may be familiar with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a malaise caused by daylight deprivation that typically lifts as winter fades. SAD can only be diagnosed by a medical professional, said Dr. Teodor Postolache, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. To be clinically diagnosed, a person must experience seasonal remission and a reawakening of the depression in multiple winters.
Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, said the triggers are unclear, “but the hypothesis is that an increase in melatonin production caused by longer winter nights may trigger SAD in vulnerable people.”
Because SAD is so strongly tied to light, therapy lamps, sometimes called light boxes, can be a powerful way to treat the disorder at home. The lamps utilize dozens of bulbs to imitate sunlight and are ensconced in casing designed to protect you from harmful UV rays. They beam up to 10,000 lux of light in short distances, about the same amount as sunlight on a clear day. They don’t require a prescription.
While light therapy is not the only treatment for SAD and the less severe “winter blahs,” it is among the most powerful. The key is doing it “consistently and properly,” Dr. Zeitzer said. “Finding the brightest, most comfortable light that you’re willing to use on a daily basis is what matters most.”
Before buying a light-therapy lamp, you should discuss your circumstances with a doctor, as such devices can cause side effects if used improperly. Consider where you’re most likely to use the lamp. Then you can decide whether to prioritize features like portability or mechanical adjustability.
The F.D.A. does not regulate light-therapy devices. Most deliver between 2,500 and 10,000 lux, though according to Dr. Samaan 10,000 lux is the minimum for a SAD lamp to be therapeutically effective. Any high-quality, effective therapeutic lamp should emit white light (not blue), and should use either LED or fluorescent bulbs, not incandescents.
“Everyone’s home all the time now, nonstop busy with a lot of responsibilities, but light-therapy treatment creates an opportunity to just sit and paint one’s nails or read a magazine,” Dr. Postolache said. “That time sitting with the lamp creates the benefit to having some time for yourself that may in itself increase the efficacy of this treatment.”