Throwing light on the winter blues
You don't need to be sad to feel SAD. But can a small light box have the same benefit as a dose of proper natural sunlight? Wayne Woodman checked out the Lite Pod.
The benefits of natural sunlight are a no brainer. Most of us feel better with the sun's rays warming our skin and feel a bit down when the clocks go back and the nights seem to start at 4 o'clock.
Sunlight is involved in all sorts of health-giving ways. It enables the body to produce vitamin D which helps strengthen bones and teeth and boost the immune system. It even appears that the age at which girls start their periods is linked to the amount of sunshine they receive — girls living near the equator tend to start menstruating before those near the north pole.
Meanwhile, when it's dark, production is increased of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, which may contribute to the symptoms of depression.
SAD — or seasonal affective disorder in which a lack of sunlight appears to contribute to depression and general winter blues — was first officially identified in 1993 by Dr. Norman Rosenthal, Director of Seasonal Studies at the United States National Institute of Mental Health.
Some 17% of people living in the northern climes are said to be affected by periodic bouts of SAD compared to just 2% in the 'sun belt'. Women appear more frequently affected than men. Rosenthal puts SAD down to a combination of factors including stress and genetic vulnerability as well as reduced daylight.
Main symptoms include:
- depression starting in autumn or winter
- lack of energy and enthusiasm, feeling of sluggishness
- lack of interest in work and in other people
- increased appetite, especailly for carbohydrates, and weight gain
- increased sleepiness including during the day with afternoon slumps
- social withdrawal
- afternoon slumps with decreased energy and concentration
- slow, sluggish, lethargic movement
The Lite Pod is not, as the name might imply, a tiny hand-held product made by Apple, but at just 15" x 5" x 5" (38 x 12.5 x 12.5 cm) it is, in the world of light boxes, one of the smallest on the market. No doubt the manufacturers hope it will become as popular as it's MP3-playing namesake.
It is that very desire for trendiness that makes you a little suspicious of the whole business. It's just too easy to put a couple of light blubs in a box and tell people that, if they pay £150 for it, it will stop them feeling depressed.
Real depression is a multi-faceted problem and needs a lot more therapy than that which a light box can offer. However, there is, of course, a big difference between depression and the winter blues and so long as we remember that, there's no reason why we shouldn't consider the light-box. It may even help in more serious depression simply by taking the worst edges off and so allowing therapy or counselling to be more effective.
The power of a light box is measured in 'lux' which is, apparently, not a soap but the unit of illuminance. The Lite Pod is 10,000 lux which means it can give a full 'treatment' in about an hour.
I found the light a little tricky to get used to at first as it is pretty bright. (The economic and environmental costs of running the thing will be offset by the fact that you won't need to put any other lights on.) However, once you do get used to it, it's easy to use and — because it's sitting there next to your computer — you're not likely to forget to take your medicine.
The US not-for-profit organisation the Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms say that you should notice some benefit within four or five days but suggest 'persevering for a week or two before concluding that light therapy doesn't work'.
I had no Eureka moment when I started using the Lite-Pod at the end of last winter but at the same time I did feel less sluggish. This year I started using it shortly after we switched back to Greenwich Mean Time.
I started out just leaving the thing on all morning regardless of whether I was at my desk or not, figuring that that would average out at a pretty reasonable dose. I then found I couldn't sleep so cut it back to about an hour. I imagine most users will need to tweak things a little to find what's best for them.
For all that, natural light is still best. One study cited by the US's National Mental Health Association found that an hour's walk in winter sunlight was as effective as two and a half hours under bright artificial light. However, if you can't get out or there's no sun at all, it might be worth giving the light box a try.
Side effects are minimal and most of them you can remedy yourself. If eyes are irritated move the pod further away and use less; a little sickness at first should go away after a few treatments; while feeling over-excited suggests something is happening but that you should reduce the treatment time. As with any self-treatment, you should tell your GP that you're planning to do it.
Light-boxes start at under £100 and are VAT free. The Lite Pod is around £115.
A light box is very easy to use:
- Put the lightbox arm's length away - slightly to one side, or under your computer screen.
- The light must go into the eye, so no goggles or tinted glasses. Regular specs or contacts are fine.
- Do not look at the light, carry on with your normal routine, just glance at it every now and then.
- Stay awake — it doesn't work if you doze off as your eyes need to be open.
- Take treatment as early as possible and certainly not within four hours of going to bed.
- Repeat daily.
For more information
- For more information try the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association.
- If you want to buy a lite pod or other light box, try www.electronichealing.co.uk or www.justnaturalstuff.co.uk.
Wayne Woodman is staff writer on malehealth.co.uk. If you've tried a light box or have experienced SAD, let us know.
Page created on December 1st, 2005
Page updated on January 17th, 2010