Thursday, May 23, 2024

Light Therapy and 7 More Ways to Brighten Dark Winter Days

Lori Dudley remembers thinking: “I just want to leave on a one-way ticket somewhere and not come back.” At the time, the 53-year-old Ottawa-area resident was experiencing severe fatigue, moodiness and a lack of motivation. The normally driven and energetic healthcare executive eventually recognized a pattern to these symptoms. They would hit her like a ton of bricks in November and abate in the spring. 

Dudley is one of the approximately 20 percent of Canadians dealing with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression. Makoto Trotter, a naturopathic doctor in Toronto, says SAD occurs on a spectrum. “There’s a lot of people who just feel a little bit blah,” he says. But, like other forms of depression, symptoms can also be much worse.

The good news, as Dudley discovered, is that there are better options than a one-way ticket to nowhere to thrive during the dark days of winter.

  1. Light is life-changing

Light therapy, in the form of light boxes and lamps, substantially benefits most users. Trotter explains that these products produce light in the same spectrum as the sun, but without ultraviolet (UV) radiation: “For some people it can be life-changing.” Dudley swears by the HappyLight she uses for 20 minutes a day, placing it at arm’s length on an angle (so she’s not staring into the light) while enjoying a book: “You start feeling lighter. No pun intended.” 

2. Wake-up call

Other light products include dawn-simulator alarm clocks (also known as sunrise alarms or wake-up lights). Rather than being woken by the shrill sound of an alarm on a dark winter morning, these products rouse users gently with light that gets brighter gradually. Research shows our circadian system (the body’s internal clock) responds best to subtle light changes when we’re still asleep, stimulating an anti-depressant response.

3. Your doctor can help

There are also pharmaceutical solutions, such as anti-depressants. Some people try mood-altering natural products, like St. John’s Wort. Trotter cautions that these shouldn’t be taken without medical advice as they can interact with other medications. For one, it can interfere with SSRI antidepressants, such as Prozac.

4. A dose of vitamin D

Lack of sunlight robs us of vitamin D. Trotter says that prolonged deprivation affects bone density and our mood, and increases our risk for autoimmune disease. Canadians can be deficient in vitamin D as a consequence of living in a northern country.

5. Is your lifestyle making you listless? 

Good lifestyle hygiene – diet, exercise, sleep – can also work wonders. Shots of caffeine in the morning because we feel sluggish, and alcohol at night to help us sleep, are not the answer. Trotter advises: “Limit refined carbohydrates and make sure you’re getting lots of protein.” 

6. Tone down the technology

While we may stay under the covers longer when it’s dark outside, it’s important those extra minutes are good-quality sleep. Studies show that using light-emitting devices such as smartphones or tablets in bed suppresses melatonin production, robbing our brains of an important cue to sleep. (Melatonin is a hormone typically produced at night, causing drowsiness and lethargy.)

7. Release the endorphins

Dudley has embraced exercise, breaking the vicious cycle of not exercising because she lacked energy – only to feel even more tired. Now, she walks several kilometres a day with her husband, combining health benefits with quality time. “You feel better about yourself,” she says. It’s no wonder. Trotter says exercise releases endorphins, “the feel-good hormones.”

8. Get ready now

The best way to avoid SAD is to be proactive. Trotter suggests having a plan ready to go by early fall. “Don’t wait too long, because then it can be difficult to get out from under that dark cloud.” Who knows – with the right planning, we may all start to wish those dark winter months were even longer. 

In the mood for LIGHT shopping? 

1. Carex TheraLite Mood & Energy Light  $74.99 Compact and portable, it’s the perfect travel companion.

2. Carex SunLite Bright Light Therapy Lamp $119.99 Ideal for use at home, or pack it in your suitcase.

3. BIOS Living Therapy Light  $139.99 Handy 10-level adjustable dimmer and visual timer.

4. Philips Wake-up Light with Radio $107.99 Light gradually fills the room and a gentle beep completes the wake-up experience. And, yes, there’s a snooze function.

5. TheraLite Aura Mood and Energy Enhancing Light $149.99 Offers four levels of brightness.

6. Philips goLITE BLU Energy Light $119.99 Convenient rechargeable battery, plus outlet cord.

7. NatureBright SunTouch Plus Lamp $215.99 Includes an optional negative ionizer air purifier fan.

8. Philips Somneo Sleep and Wake-Up Light $219 This wake-up light helps you sleep with simulated sunrise and sunset functions, including light-guided breathing to help you relax.

Light Therapy 101

  • Light therapy is used to treat seasonal affective disorder and other conditions, such as insomnia, dementia and jet lag, through exposure to artificial light. 
  • Light therapy is believed to affect brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep. Research shows a light box can help decrease the amount of melatonin circulating in your body during the day and regulate the neurotransmitters serotonin and epinephrine.
  • During light therapy, you sit or work near a light therapy box, which emits bright light that mimics natural light. The light must enter your eyes indirectly – it’s not enough just to have it nearby.
  • Light therapy is generally safe, with few side effects, although some people report mild reactions, such as headache or nausea, that generally last a day or two.
  • Start treatment in the early fall and continue through early spring.
  • Follow instructions and use your light box only for the recommended length of time.
  • Use caution if you have conditions, such as lupus, or take medications that make you sensitive to light.
  • Light therapy boxes should be designed to filter out harmful ultraviolet light. Look for ones that emit as little UV light as possible.
  • You don’t need a prescription to buy a light box (they’re generally not covered under extended health benefits). However, it’s always good to speak first with your doctor or pharmacist.

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Sue Nador
Sue Nador
Sue Nador is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. She is a 2020 candidate for the MFA in Creative Non-fiction at the University of King’s College and is writing a book about reinventing relationships in mid-life. Sue writes for various publications including Corporate Knights, This Magazine, and Via Rail. She has a loyal following on her blog, The Relationship Deal. She and her husband have two grown sons and a golden doodle they spoil rotten in their empty nest.