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In a Heartbeat

Light therapy can help eliminate your winter blues

| Monday, Feb. 13, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Dr. Alicia Kaplan
Dr. Alicia Kaplan

Feeling blue and out of sorts? It's very possible you are experiencing seasonal affective disorder or SAD. This condition usually crops up in people during the shorter, darker days of winter. What are the best ways to cope in wintry Western Pennsylvania? We asked Dr. Alicia Kaplan, an Allegheny Health Network psychiatrist about the effectiveness of light therapy.

Does light therapy truly fight the winter blues?

When sunlight decreases during the shorter days of winter, usually in January and February, many individuals experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or subsyndromal symptoms referred to as the “ winter blues”. Subsyndromal means the symptoms do not quite meet the criteria for a major depressive episode. One treatment option may include exposure to bright light therapy, a treatment to which many suffers from SAD have responded well. Several studies have indicated that artificial bright white light is effective for patients with SAD, and responses or remission will occur in about 60 percent of patients. In addition, bright light therapy for SAD is of increased benefit if used early in the morning, and used from the early fall until late spring. Light therapy should be recommended and monitored by one's health provider to make sure there are no contraindications such as risk of hypomania, or retinal disease, or the patient being on a photosensitizing medication.

What is happening scientifically to people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder usually is characterized as a type of recurring major depression that begins in the fall or early winter and ends during the spring or summer. During this time, those affected often have increased sleep, increased fatigue, increased appetite, increased carbohydrate craving, and weight gain. These are referred to as atypical symptoms of depression. Alterations in levels of serotonin — a neurotransmitter in the brain — as well as overproduction of melatonin, and altered circadian rhythms have been referred to as contributing factors in SAD. It is important to understand that depressive symptoms may be minimal, mild or to an extreme severity and it is important that one be assessed by a mental health professional for appropriate treatment. This may include a sole treatment, or combination of psychotherapy or talk therapy, bright light therapy, or psychiatric medication which can be very helpful.

How much should one invest in light therapy if they want to try it?

Light boxes usually range in price from about $100 to $400. They may or may not be covered by your health insurance. We recommend light boxes that provide an exposure to 10,000 lux of light, without harmful ultraviolet rays.

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