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Verified by Psychology Today

Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

Lighting Up Your Life

Light therapy for depression

Sad Happy Holidays

Tis the season to be jolly – and many are not. There’s the reality of seasonal depression – that a quarter to half of folks in dark environments like the northern US feel down in the winter. Add on a further reality, that about thirty percent of Americans will be depressed lifetime. Perhaps ten percent are depressed right now. Next consider the holiday mismatch between expectations and reality – Hallmark card family images confronting psychological and social conflict, economic hardship, and politicians bent on fanning fear to obtain power – with results provoking confusion, anger, sadness and despair.

So what’s one to do? One simple answer – get light.

Go outside. If that’s not feasible, buy an inexpensive lightbox.

For light can treat more than seasonable depression. Light – simple, inexpensive sunlight – can by itself, or preferably combined with other forces, make people feel a whole lot better.

In any season.

Lighting Up the Morning

Raymond Lam has been researching light for a long time. So he took a team of researchers throughout all of Canada and over five years randomized treatment of non-seasonal depressives to light, fluoxetine (prozac) and placebo.

What happened?

A. Fluoxetine was no better than placebo (don’t be surprised – most studies don’t show anti-depressants as particularly effective at treating new cases of depression.)

B. Light – thirty minutes in front of lightbox pumping out 10,000 lux (light units) per day was appreciably better than placebo.

C. Fluoxetine plus light were better than anything else.

So Why Aren’t People Using Light More Often?

Here are at least four major reasons:

1. Money. Air is pricey. Pollution effects include deaths by respiratory disease, heart disease, cancer plus changes in mentation – before thinking about global climate change. Dirty air is very expensive. But light – sunlight – is really cheap, even free (ask your favorite plant.) It’s hard to make money on something that’s free – though light boxes cost something, as does electricity. So medical and health companies rarely prosper by packaging sunlight as a medical therapy – though airlines, tour operators and resort owners can.

2. Convenience. People don’t get excited thinking they have to sit each day in front of a lightbox eating, watching TV or cooking for a half hour (though they don’t seem to mind looking at cellphones or tablets – which they can also do at the same time.) Except they don’t have to. Anna Wirz-Justice marched people around not so sunny wintry Basel and got them undepressed – though physical activity might have helped. The truth is, you don’t need a lightbox – sunlight, even relatively weak sunlight, improves mood. However, it’s “simpler” to take a pill than to get light or walk around – even if the pill is not better than placebo.

3. Silos. Medicos give drugs. Psychotherapists talk. Who uses light as their main treatment intervention? At this point, rather few – which is unfortunately the case for most multi-combined treatments of depression. Professional loyalty all too often decrees one size fits all – or maybe two sizes, like psychotherapy and drugs.

4. People don’t believe the results. Depression treated by light? That’s just too simple to work. And there’s little economic incentive to advertise the fact – compared with the profits to be made selling antidepressants on television (“ask your doctor about this remarkable new therapy.”)

How Does Light Work?

Just as drug manufacturers bamboozle the public by telling them “increasing their serotonin” will effortlessly lead to improved mood, simple answers are often lies. The brain is a very, very complicated series of information systems of whose real workings we remain profoundly ignorant. Still, there’s a bunch of potential reasons why light should work to improve mood:

1. Light resets biological clocks. This is a very big deal. The main timing mechanisms of the body’s 24 hour clocks – and several others, like monthly clocks – are set by light. Setting clocks powerfully and predictably every day changes innumerable physiological processes – influencing pretty much everything. That includes benefits like better mood. Time rules life. If your inner time is properly set and humming, you generally function a whole lot better.

2. Light is activating. People immediately feel more alert and “up” around bright light - and want to do things.

3. Light changes immunity – pretty much immediately. Natural killer cells – stuff you want on your side in the flu and cold season – pops up with light.

Lighting a New Path

These are moody times. Lots of people are getting depressed – to minor and major extents. The costs to society – economically and physically – are immense.

So it’s time to use light. For those socked by snow surrounding your kitchen, as happened last year in New England, light boxes are a good bet. Very functional ones cost about 70 bucks.

For the rest of us, sunlight can work. It can work even better when we’re moving. Walking outside in the morning can help prevent colds. It can help prevent heart attacks. It can decrease weight and increase attractiveness.

It can also treat, and indeed help prevent, depression. That’s something to celebrate in the New Year.