Relieving Depression with Sun and Light

Using sun and light to relieve depression

Do you sometimes feel depressed, sluggish and inclined to nibble on sugary, carbohydrate snacks, such as cakes and biscuits? Do you tend to experience this during the late winter and early spring months? Do you usually welcome the spring and the summer months? If the answer to each of these questions is yes, you would probably benefit from light therapy.

Most of us usually feel better in the summer months when light levels are higher than in the winter months. Our mood lifts, colors become more vibrant, everything springs into life. A week’s holiday in the sun during the winter months can significantly relieve depression – although the effect is, unfortunately, not long lasting. Increase your length of exposure if you seem to be deriving little benefit. If you start to feel irritable and overactive, decrease your amount of exposure to light.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Winter depression may be caused by a rise in the level of melatonin, a substance produced in the brain. When light levels are increased, the production of melatonin stops and the depression lifts. The significance of low light levels was not recognized until the start of the 1980s. Research identified what is now known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD.

The results of using light therapy at trial stage in the early 1980s were spectacular: up to 80 percent of people who had fallen into a devastating depression every winter for years were suddenly, within a week, cured of their depression with no serious side effects. They reported lifting of the depression, good mood and soaring energy levels.

All you have to do is look at a light box from anything from 30 minutes to up to four or five hours, depending on the intensity of the box used and on the severity of depression. You can continue to work, read or watch television while looking at the light box.

Melatonin Production
The pineal gland in the brain secretes a hormone called melatonin, which is derived from serotonin. It is linked to the cycle of day and night, is involved in regulating bodily functions and is what causes animals to hibernate. Sunlight stops the production of melatonin. The weaker light of winter often does not reach a sufficiently high level, so melatonin production is not suppressed and susceptible people develop SAD.

Key Facts:

  • Sunlight and artificial light of sufficient intensity relieve depression in less than a week in 75-80 percent of people with SAD.
  • If you obtain a box of 10,000 lux, you will probably need only 30 minutes’ exposure each day.
  • Light therapy still works successfully through spectacles and contact lenses.
  • Some light boxes are portable and some are designed so that you can continue working, reading or watching television while absorbing light.
  • Ordinary domestic electric lights are not intense enough to affect hormonal changes in the body.