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Light therapy may help banish winter blues
The January blahs may have nothing to do with the three pounds you gained in December or the Christmas thank-you notes that remain unwritten. They may just be the result of too little sun, and light therapy may help. - photo by Jennifer Graham
The January blahs may have nothing to do with the three pounds you gained in December or the Christmas thank-you notes that remain unwritten. They may signify youre not getting enough sun, and the solution may be as easy as turning on a light.

Light therapy is as simple as it sounds: sitting near a bright light often enough and long enough for the brain to think that its getting orders from the sun, which is in short supply in winter months.

Also called phototherapy, light therapy is surging in popularity, thanks to a spate of studies that show it to be effective in improving mood, reducing fatigue and improving focus. The practice has also benefited from a decline in prices that have made light therapy lamps affordable for more people.

Nikki Martinez, a Chicago psychologist, said only a few years ago the most inexpensive lights used for phototherapy cost several hundred dollars, but good ones are now available for less than $100, and no prescription is needed.

I believe they help, Martinez said. I believe the research, and I have seen them work for myself and for patients.

Studies by the Mayo Clinic, the University of Vermont and Columbia University, among others, have shown significant and sustained improvement in the moods and focus of people who try light therapy. The therapy has even helped Alzheimer's patients sleep and focus better, and it's being tried in schools to help winter-weary students pay attention.

In Sweden, one high school has installed therapy lights throughout the building. And in Erie, Pennsylvania, a reading teacher saw an improvement in fourth-graders' attention after just a few days using the light. "The few days that I used it were wonderful," said teacher Lynda Pryor. "They were more on target than they usually are."

Unlike tanning beds and booths, which are considered carcinogens, light therapy lamps do not emit ultraviolet light. Instead, they use white or blue light that ranges in intensity from 5,000 to 10,000 lux. Thats 100 times brighter than a room lit normally, but only half as bright as strong sunlight. Another way the lights are different from tanning beds: You have to have your eyes open to get the benefit. (People using tanning beds must protect their eyes.)

The light needs to get into the retina to be effective, said Jeffrey Anshel, an optometrist in Encinitas, California. The retina, he explained, sends a message to the part of the brain that controls circadian rhythms, the day-and-night cycle that governs most living organisms, and is disrupted by changes like travel across time zones or shortened days in winter. That message is, in effect, everythings all right.

Light therapy was introduced in the 1980s and until recently was primarily prescribed by doctors and mental health professionals to treat clinical depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression that mostly affects people in fall and winter. About 6 percent of the U.S. population is believed to suffer from SAD, and another 14 percent experience a milder version of it, simply called the winter blues, said Michael Gottsacker, marketing director for Verilux, which manufactures light therapy lamps called HappyLights.

The human body is made to basically be awake when its light out and to be asleep when its dark. I live in Minnesota, and in winter, I come to work in the dark, and I go home in the dark. Because theres less natural daylight available, your body gets out of whack, Gottsacker said.

Winter blues can be self-diagnosed: Youre in a funk, you need some light, and thats where we come in, he said.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates tanning beds (and has recently proposed a ban on their use by minors), but it does not regulate light therapy lights, which are generally considered safe, with notable exceptions. The lamps should not be used by people taking medication or supplements that increase light sensitivity (for example, anti-inflammatories, St. Johns Wort and some antibiotics) and by anyone diagnosed as bipolar, because their use can induce mania in those individuals. Others, like people with diabetes, should not begin light therapy without checking with their doctors.

And a study published Nov. 5 in the American Journal of Psychiatry said that cognitive behavioral therapy (one-on-one counseling with a therapist) works better than light therapy to treat people with acute cases of seasonal affective disorder.

Researchers from the University of Vermont found that patients were more likely to have depression recur when they used light therapy, in part because they found it difficult to sustain it. Light therapy is a palliative treatment, like blood pressure medication, that requires you to keep using the treatment for it to be effective, lead researcher Kelly Rohan said in a news release. In the second year of the study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, 70 percent of the subject had stopped using the lamps. "Adhering to the light therapy prescription upon waking for 30 minutes to an hour every day for up to five months in dark states can be burdensome," Rohan said.

For most healthy people, however, light therapy can be an inexpensive way to lift spirits and raise energy levels without drugs, Martinez, the Chicago psychologist, said. And she finds it easy to work into her day: She uses her light in the morning while she is drinking coffee and reading email.

"We've had long and hard winters here for the past few years, and I have noticed an increase in depression in my patients. I'm not saying that this eliminates it completely, but it does help," Martinez said.

"In Chicago, winter is nine months out of the year, and we do anything it takes to get through it."