Bring in the Light

It’s been creeping toward me since late October, when the crops in our garden began to die back. By November, the spectacular autumn gloaming that my neighborhood is known for faded long before I returned home from work, leaving me feeling undernourished by the sun. And now that December has ushered in the dark days of winter, my depression is entrenched and difficult to evict, even with the assistance of a therapeutic light device.

I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, also know as SAD, and perhaps the most apt acronym of any neurocognitve difference. Among SAD’s more common symptoms are fatigue, depression, hopelessness, hyper-somnolence (sleeping too much), increased appetite including uncontrollable urges to eat sugar and high-carbohydrate foods, weight gain, social withdrawal, and suicidal ideation. Who wouldn’t be sad with such a hot mess of possible symptoms?  

I was diagnosed at age 27 by my physician who determined that my pattern of symptoms that began in late October and diminished by early March met the criteria for seasonal affective disorder. She joked with me that I could ameliorate my “winter blues” by moving to the tropics, but with my red hair and ginger complexion, she didn’t recommend it. I could also try an SSRI medication, since the serotonin transporter gene seems to be a culprit in seasonal patterns of depression. Or, I could try Bright Light Therapy, otherwise known as BLT, and a much happier acronym, due to its association with my favorite sandwich. I chose to forgo medication, and purchase a Bright Light Therapy device.

Bright Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder is a well-researched and documented treatment. Numerous scientific studies, including gold standard double blind studies point to the excellent results that come with therapeutic use of light for the treatment of seasonal depression. Bright Light Therapy works by stimulating cells in the retina that are connected to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that regulates body temperature, hunger, important aspects of parenting and attachment behaviors, thirst, fatigue, sleep, and circadian rhythms. Activating the hypothalamus at a certain time every day via the use of a therapeutic light device can restore a normal circadian rhythm in people with SAD, decreasing seasonal symptoms.

My first therapeutic light, which I purchased in 1992 and is still my workhorse, is the Northern Lights Technologies  “desk lamp”. It’s not the prettiest appliance in my home, but it has been reliable, providing 10,000 lux and helping me treat my winter blues for more almost 30 years. A few years ago I purchased a light visor from Feel Bright Light. I thought it would be a great alternative, as I could walk around the house and get tasks completed while I receive my 30 to 60 minutes of light therapy. The challenge though, is that Bright Light Therapy constricts your pupils, so if you’re walking around your home and the light from the device is greater than the ambient light in the room, you won’t be able to see what you are doing. I’ve found that both lights are best with stationary tasks, such as checking email, reading, mending, etc. And for me, they both work best first thing in the morning, as I have the phase forward version of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Because SAD is a condition affecting one’s circadian rhythm, there tends to be two distinct patterns of symptoms. People like me tend to phase forward which means my entire circadian rhythm shifts so that I don’t feel tired or want to go to bed until 2AM, and would be happiest if I could rise at 11AM or so. Folks who phase reverse are tired very early in the evening, sometimes struggling to keep their eyes open at 6PM. Yet, they awaken early, at 3AM or 4AM, unable to return to sleep. Those of us who phase forward are recommended to use therapeutic light when we awaken in the morning, whilst those who phase reverse should use BLT in the evening around dinner time. 

My visor BLT device is charging as I write this, getting a full battery for the mornings ahead. Next Saturday, we’ll bring home our Christmas tree, which will be covered in glittery ornaments and tiny white lights. We also like to burn a huge log in our fireplace on the eve of the winter solstice, one that lasts for more than 24 hours, as a symbol of Yule. While these icons of light won’t provide enough lux to be classified as BLT, sparkling symbols of the winter holidays always lift my spirits. 

Bring in the light!