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Can Light Stop Depression?

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Feeling sad and full of winter blues? Never fear! You can prevent wintertime depression with these simple tips.

Have you heard about SAD?

SAD is the acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder, and according to research conducted by Psychology Today, it affects about 20 percent of Americans each winter.

Read on to learn more about this condition and how to prevent it.

What is SAD?

SAD is simply a general low feeling of "the blues" or fatigue that strikes 20 percent or more of people in the winter. It is more common in areas with less sunlight, as it is caused by a lack of vitamin D.

Vitamin D is typically made when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Without sun exposure, your body does not make enough vitamin D, which can lead to symptoms of minor depression. If you are already feeling minorly depressed, SAD can become a serious condition where minor depression becomes moderate or even major depression.

Although it seems a little silly, sun exposure is vital for your mental health. SAD is easy to treat with additional sunlight, light therapy, or by taking vitamin D supplements. A combination of all three can prevent winter SAD and help you feel energized and healthy throughout the winter months even if you live in Alaska, where it is dark for much of the winter.

Treating SAD with Light Therapy

Most doctors and medical professionals treat SAD with light therapy. Light therapy is the process of shining UV light (white has been shown to be most effective) at your face for a few minutes a day. The Mayo Clinic recommends starting with 15-minute sessions with a 10,000-lux light box and working up to 30-minute sessions.

According to research conducted by Psych Education in 2013, light therapy is most effective when the light is shined down from above your head, like it would appear if it was coming from the sun. White light is more effective than blue, and in some cases, moving while being expose to the light produces even greater mood-boosting results. Over a period of a few weeks, light therapy has been shown to reverse SAD and boost overall mood.

Can Light Therapy Treat Non-Seasonal Depression?

Since light therapy was so effective in treating minor depression and SAD, researchers started to wonder if light therapy could also treat more serious forms of depression.

In November of 2015, researchers examined the effectiveness of light therapy versus the antidepressant fluoxetine over eight weeks and published their results in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study compared 122 adults reporting moderate to severe depression. Participants were divided into four groups with treatment plans as follows:

  • Light therapy for 30 minutes a day with a 10,000 lux light
  • Light therapy and fluoxetine
  • Fluoxetine alone
  • Placebo pill and placebo light (which was the control group)

The researchers found that the biggest change was seen in the group who combined light therapy with the medication. But surprisingly enough, the least effective treatment method was the medication alone. Both light therapy and placebo were more effective than the medication group.

By the end of the study, the medicated/light therapy group scored 16.9 on the MADRS (Montgomery-Åsberg Depression Rating Scale) and the light therapy group scored 13.4. At the end of the study, the placebo group reported recovery for 33 percent, the light group had 50 percent recovery, the medicated group had 29 percent recovery, and the combination group had 75 percent recovery.

How is Light Therapy Beneficial?

As these studies show, light therapy is an effective treatment for not only seasonal depression, but also all forms of depression. In the 2015 study, researchers hypothesized that bight light is able to reset the biological clock, which helps regulate hormones and chemical balance in the body.

Most depression is triggered by a chemical imbalance in the brain, so the anchor of the circadian rhythm is effective in preventing imbalance and restoring the right level of chemical and hormone production. Researchers also hypothesize that light can have a similar effect in the brain to antidepressants. Light regulates neurotransmitter function, helping prevent the dramatic spikes and drops that contribute to feelings of depression.

However, further research is necessary to determine the precise benefit of light therapy. For now, it is enough to know that light significantly improves depressive symptoms from any cause. If you want to feel better, go spend some time outdoors in the sun.

The Incredible Importance of Vitamin D

Typical light therapy does not boost vitamin D levels. Only true exposure to sunlight can help the body increase vitamin D production. Vitamin D deficiencies are associated with depression and SAD in particular. Numerous studies link vitamin D deficiencies with feelings of depression apart from the other benefits that light therapy can bring.

According to research, there is something in the light itself that can fight depression aside from vitamin D, but vitamin D is also incredibly important to avoid SAD and minor depression. Research suggest that the optimal vitamin D blood level is between 40 and 60 ng/ml.

Most Americans have vitamin D levels far below this level, simply due to the indoor lifestyle that most of us lead, and the sun scare of recent years due to increased skin cancer risks associated with sun exposure. Vitamin D receptors are present in much of the brain.

When you have enough vitamin D, nerve growth is triggered in the brain, helping with not only nervous system disorders but also with hormone regulation and regulation of all of the body's systems. Vitamin D is used in almost every system in the body, including bone production.

Blue Light vs White Light

Research from Psych Education in 2013 found that white light was more effective in treating depression than blue light. But studies from 2010 found that blue light is associated with boosting mood and the ability to process emotions. More time spent in both blue and white light helps fight depression and SAD. The outdoor light of the sun is fill of blue and white light which are both associated with gains in mood and depression.

If you cannot get exposure to white light, blue light is a close second in benefit for mood. However, blue light at night is actually bad for your health. Most electronics give off blue light, which is fine for daytime use, but at night, blue light triggers your instinct to stay awake.

At night, the body needs yellow, orange, or red lights to calm down and reset the clock for the following day. The body is a complicated system of hormones and chemicals and it is important to follow the rhythms of the body closely for optimal health.

In the day, expose yourself to the most white and blue light you can (outdoor light is superior to any artificial light), but at night, amber, yellow, and red lights tell your body it is time to sleep and produce the chemicals and hormones that contribute to a good night's sleep and help regulate the entire body.

Other Ways to Prevent Winter SADness

You don't have to face the winter blues. If you go outside, even for just 10 minutes a day in sunlight, your body will be much healthier and your mood will improve. But there is more you can do for you health that will work in combination with light to keep you healthy and free from depression.

Diet

What you eat can play a large role in how you feel. Junk food leads to a junk mood. Junk food lacks the nutrients that your brain needs to create chemicals to fight depression. Lazy eating leads to lazy feelings and can contribute to feelings of depression. It is tempting to curl up in the winter eating comfort junk foods, but vegetables, healthy meat, and fruit will provide vital nutrients that can fight low-moods and help you have more energy and feel better about yourself from the inside out.

Exercise

Exercise is an effective mood booster. Studies show that exercise increases feel-good chemicals like endorphins and serotonin. Just 30 minutes of exercise a day can help lift your mood. If you exercise during the day in the sun, your benefits will be even greater. Vitamin D Vitamin D is crucial to your mental state. If you cannot get outside enough (and most Americans can't), vitamin D3 supplements can help fill in some missing gaps. Try a daily vitamin D supplement and see if you don't start to feel better after a few weeks.

Mood-Boosting Supplements

A few herbs and vitamins have also been shown to have positive effect on mood. If you think you may have moderate or mild depression, try adding these supplements to your routine:

Omega 3 fats: Omega 3 fats are necessary for brain health. Most omega 3 fats are found in fish, which is why Americans are often deficient in this vital fat. You can make up for it by taking an omega 3 supplement daily.

Vitamin B6: Vitamin B6 is found in dairy products, but is reduced in processed, conventional dairy. Look for pasture-raised dairy for the highest vitamin B6 levels. Additionally, vitamin B6 supplements can help fill in any remaining gaps.

St John's Wort: St. John's wort has been shown to improve mood in numerous studies. Ginkgo Biloba: This ancient herb has positive mood-boosting effects.

Probiotics: There is a strong link between a balanced gut and mood. Some studies have even found a link between bacteria in the gut and mood disorders, such as schizophrenia. Taking a daily probiotic can help restore balance to your intestines and ensure you are not suffering from low mood due to a bacterial imbalance.

Mood-Boosting Supplements 

You Don't Have to be SAD

Studies show that depression is heavily influenced by the amount of light in your daily life. Prevent some of the biggest side effects of winter blues by ensuring your light levels are high. Get plenty of blue and white light during the day, and switch to yellow lights at night for optimal benefit. Combined with other mood-boosting habits, you can fight seasonal depression without side effects.

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