Monday Medical: Light therapy can uplift winter moods
February 10, 2013
Steamboat Springs — "Let the light shine in." That is Tom Traynor's best advice to avoid developing a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
Traynor, a licensed clinical psychologist who has practiced in Steamboat for 37 years, said SAD can result when the human brain responds to the decrease in the amount of light it receives during the shorter days of winter.
Traynor said the theory of SAD is that less light causes less stimulation of the brain, the pituitary gland and therefore all other hormones in the body.
"It begins in a part of the brain called the SCHN, a group of cells that sits next to the optic tract," Traynor explains. "Its only function is to measure the amount of light that the brain or the eyes are exposed to.
The SCHN then sends a signal to the pituitary gland, which is the master signal gland for all of the hormones in our body. Hormones regulate mood, appetite, sleep and wakefulness, energy levels, sexual interest and a large number of other functions.
"Symptoms of SAD are similar to what people experience with any depression," he said. "But we believe that other types of depression are more likely caused by neurotransmitters in the brain, whereas SAD is much more about light exposure in the brain.
"Sunlight appears to be one of the best ways our brain regulates our hormone functions and our circadian rhythms," he adds. "The circadian rhythm is your body's natural 24-hour cycle of hunger, desire for sleep, elimination and other daily functions."
Interior lighting averages less than one-tenth the lux measurement of natural sunlight. This disparity has led Traynor to consider a second theory.
"Human beings have for a long time been primarily exposed to artificial lighting that is not regulated by the seasons and time of day," he said. "When our workdays keep us indoors for eight to 12 hours daily, we have removed ourselves from the light conditions that we have been evolving with for more than a million years.
"Over the last 100 years we have stopped being sunlight creatures and started being office-light creatures. Even if we work near a window, the light indoors is nowhere near as bright as is believed to be needed to treat the symptoms of SAD."
It is tempting to self-diagnose SAD if your energy level is dragging, you are not getting enough sleep and you feel as though you experience the winter blues. But Traynor cautions against making this assumption.
"If you suspect you have SAD, see a good mental health practitioner and do a thorough history and review of symptoms to rule out other problems or causes," he advises.
The two most frequently prescribed treatments for SAD are increased exposure to light and anti-depressant medications.
"You can buy a light box and sit in front of it for twice a day for 30 to 45 minutes each time," Traynor said. "Or you can be outside for at least 90 minutes of sunlight per day. Temporarily relocating to an area characterized by bright light, such as the Caribbean, can achieve similar results."
If you can't afford a Caribbean vacation, the light box may be your best bet. Its illumination is about 10 times the intensity of indoor lighting. Numerous models are available in stores and online, for prices that range from about $60 to upwards of $300.
Traynor will share more information about SAD in his Feb. 14 Taking Care of Me program at Yampa Valley Medical Center, "Beat the Winter Blues: Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder." Call 970-871-2500 or email email@example.com for more information.
Christine McKelvie is a writer/editor for Yampa Valley Medical Center. Patricia Moore contributed to this article.