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Light and You
By Sheri Lundstrom          About the Author

Are you feeling a foreboding of winter? Are you unusually tired or irritable? Do you find yourself avoiding friendly gatherings or indulging in the urge to hibernate? Could it be that short days and long nights are making you feel SAD?

SAD is an acronym for “Seasonal Affective Disorder” more commonly known as the “Winter Blues.” This disorder occurs primarily in winter months with a higher incidence in the northern latitudes. Although during extended cloudy summer weather many people report SAD symptoms.

About 20% of Minnesotans find that during cloudy weather or during the winter months their cognitive skills are not as sharp and they have considerably less energy. An everyday task takes longer to complete. Craving sweet or starchy foods and gaining weight is not uncommon. Some people experience a change in their sleep patterns, for example, you might sleep two extra hours each night during the winter months, and yet still feel tired.

Light plays a major role in our well-being, as does the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. As the sun begins to rise in the morning the light that makes its way through our eyelids has a tremendous impact on our body. This morning light is recognized by the pineal gland located in our brain. This gland then secretes a chemical called serotonin and reduces the production of a chemical called melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone that our body produces to help us sleep, while serotonin regulates our mood and energy. Serotonin and melatonin work together in managing important aspects of our physiology. Immunity, pain, digestion, sleep, body temperature, blood pressure, blood clotting, and daily body rhythms are all affected by serotonin and melatonin. Bright light and the amount of time we are exposed to it can affect our serotonin and melatonin levels. Energy level, alertness, mood, pain, sleep/wake cycle, and the ability to control our weight and appetite are all affected by the level of these hormones. Increasing serotonin levels is one way to achieve better health.

Exposure to bright light, known as light therapy, has been proven to be an effective method of combating those “Winter Blues.” The term “lux” is used when discussing light therapy, lux is a measurement of illumination. In our homes we have 200 to 300 lux. A well-lit office may have 500 lux, whereas a sunny day produces 50,000 to 100,000 lux. Light boxes are designed to have an output of 10,000 lux. Full spectrum light is not necessary since intensity is the key factor, but a balanced-spectrum light minus the UV-B emissions is considered ideal and more comfortable to the eyes. The light box is placed on a table in front of the user at the recommended distance for the desired intensity. The key to placement is that the light shine into the user’s eyes. A person using the box will sit in front of a unit for a given length of time each day. Usually an exposure of 15 to 45 minutes per day is effective. Bright light exposure is likely to enhance serotonin and alleviate some symptoms when used at any time during the day. However, the most success is achieved by identifying how the change in daylight has shifted the person’s daily (circadian) rhythms, particularly the sleep cycle. Most people with seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.) symptoms, show changes in their sleep/wake patterns and melatonin levels, which can be regulated by bright light.

Winter blues sufferers tend to show two common shift patterns in their sleep phase: sleep delayed or sleep advanced.

About 80% of sufferers show the sleep delayed pattern. Their melatonin production and sleep periods begin later at night, and creep into the normal AM waking hours. These people have trouble waking up in the morning, and often never feel fully awake, even if they have slept longer than usual. This group should use the light box upon waking in the morning.

The sleep advanced are the other 20% who feel best in the morning, then fade steadily by afternoon, often going to sleep hours earlier than normal. Initially, regular use of a light box during the early to late afternoon is best until symptoms disappear. Then the user may be able to cut the session time or split a half-hour AM session into 15 minutes AM and PM. Some care should be taken as it is possible to overuse a light box.

What happens when fall arrives and you must get up without the cue of sun light? When you are awakened with your alarm clock and it is still dark outside your body does not know that it is time to arise and shine.

Dawn simulation is one way to eliminate the barbaric wake up in the dark. A dawn simulator is a computerized device attached to a bedside lamp. About 45 minutes before you choose to awaken a light begins to illuminate. This light gradually fills your room with your own personal sunrise. The pineal gland in your brain registers this light and begins secreting serotonin. Therefore, you wake up feeling rested and many people wake up naturally without an alarm. Dawn simulation actually tricks your brain into thinking it is light outside and it is time to awaken. Dawn simulation can be a great help to those people that have a difficult time waking up in the dark.

When first starting light therapy I had some doubts. Could something so simple really make me feel better? After 4 days of sitting in from of a bright light box I was coming alive, like a flower in the springtime. After 2 weeks I was able to eliminate all my anti-depressant medications. Medications are a thing of the past for me.

The average person responds to light therapy in 2 weeks, but some people take up to a month. It is recommended that anyone who sees a seasonal pattern to their condition should have a qualified health professional determine if they may be suffering from SAD. My favorite expression was “I am solar powered," Now I know I really am. I call my light box my “Natural Prozac.”

About the author: Sheri Lundstrom is a SAD sufferer. Because of the major impact these products had on her life, she started Light Therapy Products. Light Therapy Products offers a wide variety of products for enhancing serotonin levels. Light box units, dawn simulators, bulbs, tubes, and books are available for purchase. For Inquiries, please call 651-351-9800.

This Article was published in the December 1996 issue of Twin Cities Wellness.

Articles are posted for informational purposes only. All articles are reprinted by permission of their respective publisher. Further reproduction without permission by the publisher is prohibited.

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