Let the Light In

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While high-rise living is quintessential to urban life, it may also be limiting exposure to natural light for people living in a 12-story apartment—especially early morning light—and making those tenanats more susceptible to Seasonal Affective Disorder.

SAD, also known as seasonal depression or winter depression, begins affecting people in late fall and can last through early May; in accordance with the time of year when overall daylight is shortest.

The specific cause of SAD remains unknown. Early on, researchers thought that SAD was triggered by shorter days in winter and thus total daylight. Now they theorize that it is the earliest morning light exposure that is the critical factor. That’s the time of day when our internal biological clock needs to receive a light signal in order to stay synchronized to local time. When we let our bioclock slip, depression can set in explained Dr. Michael Terman, director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia University Medical Center.

Changes in melatonin levels, the hormones that play a role in sleep patterns and mood that are affected by changes in the seasons, and serotonin levels, the neurotransmitters or brain chemicals that affect mood and can be reduced by lack of sunlight, are also thought to be contributing factors to SAD, according to researchers at the Mayo Clinic.

What this means for people living in urban areas, who tend to get insufficient exposure to morning light regardless of the season, is that their exposure is even less during the time of year when people are most susceptible to SAD.

Knowing the symptoms and dispelling misconceptions about seasonal depression are preemptive measures that can be taken before even the earliest signs of slumping set in. The list of SAD symptoms is similar to that of non-seasonal depression and includes: anxiety, loss of energy, social withdrawal and changes in appetite. Difficulty getting out of bed, daytime fatigue and carbohydrate food cravings are also early signs of SAD, according to Dr. Terman. The subtlety of symptoms oftentimes leaves people equating how they’re feeling to other situations such as stresses of the school year, bad family experiences over the holidays or the cold weather; all common misconception people make about SAD, according to Dr. Terman, that prevent them from seeking treatment.

Like non-seasonal depression, antidepression medication is a form of treatment for SAD, but because of its relationship to early morning light exposure, another popular form of treatment for seasonal depression is light therapy, a concept Dr. Terman has been researching for over 20 years.

Light therapy, or naturalistic-dawn therapy uses a light therapy box that exposes individuals to a bright, artificial light source mimicking natural outdoor light. The purpose is to alter people’s circadian rhythms in a way that reduces the impact of insufficient light exposure and SAD. It offers an alternative to drug-based treatment; the clearest benefit of which is lower risk of side effects. People using this form of treatment have the ability to program their machines to automatically come on while they’re sleeping so they don’t have to remember to take medications and can begin feeling the effects of their treatment quicker than with antidepressants, which Dr. Terman says, can take weeks to begin showing benefits.

In cases where SAD is not severe enough to require clinical treatment, or for individuals suffering from the less severe winter blues, simple lifestyle changes can also be beneficial. Exercising more, brightening up your environment to boost your mood and spending time outdoors—for instance, taking a walk on your lunch break—are home remedies recommended by the Mayo Clinic.

Dr. Terman emphasized that a clinician should treat severe instances of SAD. People having a hard time determining if their feelings are clinically significant can take a diagnostic test online and print out results for their doctors.

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