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Can light therapy stop you feeling Sad?

It’s that time of year again. You should have woken this morning feeling refreshed after an extra hour in bed, and now we are back on Daylight Saving Time, meaning we’ll have a little more light in the morning and it’ll be noticeably darker in the evenings. As the weeks stomp along that light will reduce of course, until Dec 21 and the day which has the least amount of daylight: seven hours and 49 minutes for Londoners and increasingly less the further north one goes.

Well that’s hardly a newsflash now, is it? Nor is the fact that a reduction in light can mean a reduction in general well-being: as anyone who has lived through a British winter knows, it’s hard to remain continuously chirpy when the scarce light we do have seems more grey than bright. Some suffer what’s often termed “the winter blues” – a noticeable lowness and lethargy caused by endless dark days, while others suffer its stronger, bigger brother, Seasonal Affective Disorder (Sad).

This disorder can be debilitating. According to mental health charity Mind it affects at least 10 per cent of us and can result in fatigue, anxiety, loss of libido, sleep problems, depression and mood swings.

Symptoms usually begin between September and November and go on until March – up to seven months.

Even if you don’t feel acutely depressed, just a little low, during this time, that’s still more than half your year feeling supremely under par. However, before you buy that one-way ticket to the equator, consider light therapy.

Essentially, this means standing or sitting near bright artificial lighting in the form of a light box for at least 30 minutes a day. It might sound a little kooky, or perhaps even just plain desperate, but light therapy is becoming an increasingly recognized non-pharmacological method of treatment. Recent research from the Sad charity Sada suggests 85 per cent of light box users with diagnosed Sad report a successful hike in their mood.

Many light boxes are now classed as medical devices, which means they are rigorously tested to European safety standards and their clinical effectiveness is assessed and continually monitored. The light they emit is at least 10 (sometimes 100) times brighter than other domestic lighting. It contains virtually none of the harmful UV rays found in sunlight, and many newer models now contain blue-enriched white LEDs, thought to be particularly effective.

But it’s not just Sad sufferers who could benefit from light therapy and its ability to control and regulate the body’s natural rhythms: “As a nation we’re sleep deprived,” says Dr Vicki Revell, a specialist in chronobiology, or the biological clock. “We don’t take enough notice of our sleep-wake cycles. In winter we’re often waking up into darkness, and not getting that early morning light that we actually need to keep our bodies synchronized. Essentially we are giving ourselves mild jet lag.”

Lucy Fry