Are the winter blahs starting to become more than just an annoyance for you? Do you find that your everyday life is affected by your mood and that you’re even having physical symptoms? You could have a mental disorder that’s brought on by the lack of light at this time of year — but a recent study has yielded proof that a couple of simple non-drug therapies could help you emerge from the winter darkness that this condition brings on.
“Seasonal affective disorder” (SAD), a.k.a. the “winter blues,” is a condition that affects millions of people every time the colder months hit. As the days get shorter, and people spend more time indoors, some of them experience symptoms that are brought on by the lack of sunlight. These can range from mild to severe, including appetite changes (you might get a major craving for sugary foods), putting on some extra pounds, feelings of sadness, fatigue, and a desire to sleep all the time.
For some people, SAD can become quite serious and even disabling. It’s thought that this depressive disorder could affect more than 10 million Americans every year, with 70 to 80% of the sufferers being female. Treatments for SAD include drugs called “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors” (SSRIs); psychotherapy; lifestyle changes such as regular exposure to the outdoors, exercise, and dietary modifications; and light-box therapy.
It’s this last one that leads us directly to a study from last month’s issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry that looked at the increasingly popular light-box therapy, also known as bright-light therapy, in contrast to other alternative therapies. A light box is a device that can fit on your desk or dresser, which emits a light. You usually have to sit in front of it, at a specified distance, for about 30 minutes every morning.
The study, out of Columbia University, New York, was aimed at non-drug therapies for SAD and bipolar II disorder. There were 99 people involved in the trial, 94 of which had SAD and five of which were bipolar. The patients were split into five groups, each receiving one of these treatments: 1) dawn simulation (set to be like the May sunrise in the temperate north); 2) dawn light pulse (shorter than the full simulation); 3) 30 minutes of bright-light therapy upon waking up; 4) negative air ionization set at a high flow rate; or 5) negative air ionization set at a low flow rate.
What is negative air ionization? An ion is a molecule that has gained an extra electron or lost one, with the former combination being called a “negative air ion.” This type of ion comes from the environment, such as sunlight and the flow of air and water. Negative air ionization is said to help clean the air and boost the mood. That’s why there are now small devices that can produce negative air ions.
Anyway, back to the study. All types with the exception of the bright-light therapy were delivered automatically during the last few hours of the study subjects’ sleep by devices placed near the bed. The study lasted for three weeks.
How did the different therapies stack up, in terms of improvement in SAD symptoms? The bright-light therapy won out overall, with a 57.1% improvement in the patients. The next two best therapies were dawn simulation, at 49.5%, and high-flow negative air ionization, at 47.9%. Next on the list is the dawn light pulse, with a 42.7% improvement, followed by the low-flow negative air ionization at a distant 22.7%.
Although the light box is the clear winner, it might not be the best choice for everyone. The reason is that it does require effort and dedication, spending 30 minutes sitting relatively still in front of the device every day. This can be difficult, especially if you’re feeling depressed, or if you’re strapped for time.
The good news is that the dawn simulation and high-flow negative air ionization also had significant improvement rates, and all the participants had to do was set the devices to start at a particular time. The devices did all the work while the participants slept. The dawn light pulse had a decent showing as well, but led to lingering or worsened symptoms in some of the study subjects. Obviously, the low-flow negative ionization results are less than satisfactory.
If you think that you might be suffering from SAD, you must see your doctor. It is a recognized condition that requires treatment and professional guidance.