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Light Therapy Not Just For SAD

Since it was first described by psychiatric journals in 1984, artificial light therapy has been used successfully to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD).  This therapy is meant to simulate exposure to sunlight in winter months, preventing people with SAD from suffering as much during periods where exposure to sunlight is more limited.  In the past few years, more evidence has suggested that light therapy may be beneficial for other types of depression as well.  In 2005, for example, a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry reported that the effects of light therapy are comparable to those found in many clinical studies of antidepressant drug therapy for mood disorders.

Since our bodies are programmed to be in sync with nature’s rhythms, this concept makes total sense.  If you’re suffering from depression, you will ideally want to make it a point to get outside on winter days for at least 15 minutes at a time.  Otherwise, you can acquire a light box that mimics the rays of the sun, and expose yourself to this light for 20 minutes or more every morning.  Dawn simulators are also a great tool, as you can program them to automatically turn on each morning, gradually getting brighter to replicate the rising of the sun.

Other tools to help get your body in sync with nature’s natural rhythms may also be helpful for depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.  For example, taking physiological doses of melatonin (1 mg or less) at the onset of evening darkness can prepare your body for sleep (without being sedating).  Looking at cortisol and other hormonal fluctuations can also be helpful, as abnormalities in the diurnal output of these hormones can be corrected with natural interventions, making you less prone to mood changes that may be associated with these problems.

Does this mean that if you’re taking antidepressants, you can just go outside for a few minutes every day and be cured? Absolutely not!  You will need to work with your doctor to start implementing light therapy and some of the other recommended changes, and hopefully with time, be able to cut back on your medication.  I think the take home message is that more and more evidence is demonstrating how a disconnection with nature and it’s rhythms can have a profound effect on our mood and overall health.

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