Light Therapy for Depression and Fatigue
If you live in the farther reaches of the northern hemisphere, and especially if you live in a place where it is cloudy for much of the winter, you have probably heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD). I know a few rare people in BC or in the Pacific Northwest US who seem genuinely unfazed by the winter months and their gloom, but far more common is the experience of feeling tired, and possibly a bit depressed, until the weather starts to improve around April. In its more serious manifestations, SAD can be truly debilitating for sufferers.
I am no stranger to the winter blues. I lived in Vancouver, BC, for six winters, and remember all too well the exhaustion, the lack of motivation, and the hard-to-shake sense that everything in my life was just... blah. Then I lived in California for four years, and could not believe the difference! These days, I'm back in BC, and living in Victoria. We have had plenty of sunny days this winter, but even despite that, there was no mistaking the cloud that started to creep over me. This time, it was mostly just an exhaustion that tried to convince me that sleeping 12 hours a night was the only solution.
Thankfully, I already had in hand a better solution than that. Back in about 2006 I bought my first Litebook (a portable light therapy device) and found that it really helped me through the winters. I upgraded to the Litebook Elite in 2007 -- an even more portable device with some improvements over the first model. I took it with me when I moved to California, but did not need to use it even once. Now, back in Canada, I use it daily, first thing in the morning for 20-30 minutes, and have found it indispensible through these dark months. If I skip more than 2 days in a row, I really notice it.
So I'm writing this post partly as a testimony, and partly to provide some links and information. In my practice, I see many people who are feeling heavy, exhausted, and depressed at this time of year. It is easy to discount the influence of the season, I think, because these feelings do not generally register as "I need more light". Rather, they tend to register as feelings of hopelessness, self-blame ("Something is obviously wrong with me"), and sadness. Or, they show up as poor sleep and/or chronic exhaustion.
Humans are complex. There are always many factors contributing to how we feel. Nutrition, lifestyle, old traumas, current life stressors.... all of these things and more interact to impact how we feel on a given day, and on an ongoing basis. So if you are feeling depressed, or even just exhausted and kind of "flat", then your best bet is always to try and create a comprehensive plan for feeling better -- with the help of professionals where possible and as necessary. But if you live somewhere where it is dark in the winter, and your symptoms are especially grim through December, January and February, then I strongly advise you to try some light therapy.
It isn't usually a magic bullet (though if you read some testimonials for different light therapy devices, you will see that sometimes it is). But there is research to back up the efficacy of light therapy, and lots of anecdotal reports of success from individuals (those aren't hard to find online if you are interested).
So what are your options? These days there are many light therapy devices on the market. I can't advise you on which models work better than others, because I have only tried a couple. I can tell you that the Litebook Elite has really helped me (and that I receive no financial benefit for telling you as much). I believe that the company may soon release a 3rd generation model, but it isn't out yet.
Not all devices are created equal. It's important to know that if your device is not bright enough, it won't do as much good, and you might be tempted to decide that light therapy didn't work for you. Make sure you are following the recommended guidelines for your device. You need to know how close it should be to your eyes, and for how long, in order to achieve the recommended daily dose. If you can possibly afford it, I believe that the money spent on a good device, assuming you will actually make it a part of your daily routine, is money very well spent.
Please note: another related issue is vitamin D levels, which can also play a role in winter symptoms. Natural sunshine will raise your vitamin D levels (though winter sunshine anywhere north of Los Angeles isn't strong enough to do it). Light therapy, however, will not affect your vitamin D levels. Most people benefit from supplementation. BC's Medical Services Plan no longer covers the cost of having your vitamin D levels tested. Talk to your doctor or naturopath about how much you should be supplementing.
In summary: It is important not to discount the impact of physiological factors on our mental and emotional well-being. If you are feeling depressed, please seek help. It is usually helpful to both attack the physiological causes (with light therapy, nutrition, exercise, and sometimes medications), as well as to have someone to work through the emotional and psychological side with. I wish you all the best.
(Image credit: Andrea Youngman.)