Friday, February 29, 2008

Don't be sad. Live your life to the fullest with bright light therapy!

Everyone is sad from time to time. A stressful job, moving, divorce, and loss of a loved one can all cause us grief. Even going to a wedding can make us a bit teary-eyed. This is all normal and part and parcel of daily life. We recover, adjust or just move on with our lives. The problem occurs when sadness or despair does not go away or seems to just come out of nowhere and then persists, interfering with the quality of our lives. This can be caused by cumulative stress, whereby simply having a talk with a friend can help alleviate the problem and turn things around for you, or it can be caused by clinical depression, where nothing seems to help and you lose all interest in the things around you and in the activities you used to do.

Theories abound about what causes depression. The most common is the one which says that there is a "chemical imbalance" in the brain. Drugs have been developed that help this condition, presumably by altering the levels of certain brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, to get them back to "normal" levels. The problem is that this is just theory and there has never been a shred of proof that there really is a so-called "chemical imbalance" in the brain. There is also no way to measure for a "chemical imbalance". The other problem is that prescription drugs are _drugs_ and all drugs have side effects, some of which can be serious, including dependence (not to mention putting a hole in your wallet!).

During the winter months, many folks feel a decline in energy levels. This seems to peak around the holiday season. You may sleep longer than usual, or not feel well-rested even if you get enough sleep. You may not perform as well on tasks at work, finding it harder to concentrate and drinking more coffee or other caffeinated beverages to help restore alertness. You may even start to crave or binge on carbohydrates and other sweets. This is what we call the "winter blahs". You just feel "blue" and can't wait for spring to come around.

Other folks, however, suffer serious emotional downturns and can no longer enjoy their daily activities, losing most or all of their motivation and this too lifts with the commencement of the spring season. The latter group is suffering from what we would term Seasonal Affective Disorder, abbreviated as SAD. "Affective" pertains to mood and "Seasonal" is pretty much self-explanatory. "Disorder" means it is bad enough that it interferes with your quality of life. An older term for this is "Winter Depression".

The good news is that for the past 20 years there has been a safe and effective treatment for SAD and the winter blahs or "blues" and it doesn't involve the use of prescription, psychotropic drugs or the side effects that would come with them. The answer lies in the application of the most natural thing in existence: light. We all know how it feels to return from a day at the beach or to drive on a bright, sunny day. The feeling is invigorating. You feel like new again. Wouldn't it be nice to feel like that during the winter too, when it is dark and gloomy? Even for folks with year-round depression, recent research shows that simple, regular use of bright light can put an end to chronic sadness once and for all.

Light therapy involves sitting in front of (and approximately three feet away from), but not looking directly at, a broad-spectrum light box everyday for 15 to 30 minutes after awakening. Results are often swift, with SAD (and even non-seasonal depression) symptoms abating within one week to 10 days. Exposure is then lengthened to a period of 30 minutes to 1 hour, if needed, to maintain a healthy mood and energy level. Sleep improves too and one feels as if it is summer, when it is actually winter! The results are amazing and the medical literature reports that light therapy is just as effective as prescription antidepressant drugs in restoring a healthy, normal mood, and without the side effects of drugs. Light therapy also helps to regulate sleep patterns by regulating melatonin, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel sleepy at night, and can help those who work late night shifts and even stimulate the immune system, making us more resistant to disease during the cold and flu season.

You may be asking yourself, "Why haven't I heard of this before?". Well, that is a good point and the answer is that light is free and cannot be patented. Drug companies have much more funding to promote their prescription antidepressant drugs, than do those researching the application of something as natural as light. Thankfully, Dr Norman Rosenthal pioneered this research into light therapy in the 1980s because he noticed that he felt depressed during the winter months, especially at higher latitudes where the light is less intense or direct, but not during the summer. Light box manufacturers began to spring up and have an assortment of products, tailored to your needs.

You also may be asking if light boxes are safe. The answer to that lies in 20+ years of research into this technology which says it is safe and effective. Although the earlier light boxes emitted UV radiation as they tried to emulate the sun's rays, all modern light boxes are free of UV rays and are considered safe to use. Always consult with your doctor before beginning any form of treatment as some antidepressant drugs and tetracycline antibiotics can make the eyes more sensitive to light and this could alter the treatment plan.

Many of us wonder why the lights in our office or home, as they seem bright, don't help us feel better. The reason for this is because light intensity is measured in lux. The amount of light present in an office building is approximately 500 lux. Research into light therapy have proven that it takes 2500 lux light intensity, sitting at a distance of 3 feet for approximately four hours, or 10,000 lux sitting at the same distance for only 30 minutes to achieve results. Standard indoor lighting is just not good enough and of course, the sun outside emits harmful UV, skin-aging, radiation.

Insurance companies are increasingly willing to pay for all or part of the cost of purchasing a light box. Even they know that a year's treatment with light is far less expensive than a year's supply of prescription antidepressant drugs. Some light box manufacturers offer an easier payment plan, consisting of a few installments. The average cost for a light box is $300, but some good manufacturers such as Alaska Northern Lights offer exceptional quality for a low price of $199 - $219 depending on the time of year. Personally, I used to suffer from depression for years until I bought an Alaska Northern Lights light box for $199. It was well worth the investment and it comes with a 5 year warranty. Mine is five years old and still works perfectly, although you should change the lights every year or so.

Don't suffer needlessly in the winter, or at any time of year. Although your first move should be to consult your physician in the case of depression, there are also psychiatrists and counselors familiar with light therapy and its benefits. Some psychiatrists even lend light boxes to their patients. Some rent them out.

Take advantage of light, the most natural thing in existence, and live your life to the fullest today!