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Seasonal Depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

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What Is Light Therapy for SAD?

Light therapy uses a full-spectrum bright light that is shined indirectly into your eyes. When you use this therapy, you sit about 2 feet away from a bright light -- about 20 times brighter than normal room lighting. The therapy starts with one 10- to 15-minute session per day. Then the times increase to 30 to 45 minutes a day, depending on your response. It's important not to look directly at the light source of any light box for extended periods in order to minimize the possible risk of damage to your eyes.

Some people with SAD recover within days of using light therapy. Others take much longer. If the SAD symptoms don't go away, your doctor may increase the light therapy sessions to twice daily. People who respond to light therapy are encouraged to continue it until they can be out in the sunshine again in the springtime.

Does Light Therapy Work for Seasonal Depression?

Some researchers link seasonal depression to the natural hormone melatonin, which causes drowsiness. Light modifies the amount of melatonin in the nervous system and boosts serotonin in the brain. So light therapy has an antidepressant effect.

Can I Prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder?

If you've been diagnosed with SAD, you can take these steps to help prevent it from coming back:

  • Spend some time outside every day, even when it's cloudy. The effects of daylight still help.
  • Begin using a 10,000 lux light box when fall starts, even before you feel the effects of winter SAD.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet. This will help you have more energy, even if you're craving starchy and sweet foods.
  • Exercise for 30 minutes a day, five times a week.
  • Stay involved with your social circle and regular activities. Social support is very important.

When Should I Call my Doctor About Seasonal Depression?

If you feel depressed, fatigued, and irritable the same time each year, and these feelings seem to be seasonal in nature, you may have a form of SAD. Talk openly with your doctor about your feelings. Follow the doctor's recommendations for lifestyle changes and treatment if you have SAD.

If your doctor recommends light therapy, ask if the practice provides light boxes for patients with SAD. You can also rent or purchase a light box, but they are expensive, and health insurance companies don't usually cover them. While side effects are minimal with light therapy, be cautious if you have sensitive skin or a history of bipolar disorder.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on August 21, 2014
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