With the change of seasons upon us, millions of Americans are facing another year of seasonal affective disorder—actual major depression that seems to be triggered by the reduction in the exposure to sunlight that is typical during the fall and winter months.
The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include low mood, inability to concentrate, changes in sleep patterns (with people sometimes sleeping much more), changes in appetite (with appetite actually increased, in some cases), low energy and tearfulness. But they can also include low self-esteem, loss of interest in activities that one had found pleasurable and even suicidal ideation.
The precise way in which less sunlight triggers major depression is not known, but there is reason to believe that changes in the production of the hormone melatonin which occur during the winter months may reduce the activity of key neurotransmitters in the brain, like serotonin. Reduced serotonin activity has long been linked to low mood and increased anxiety and major depression itself.
One of the most startling aspects of seasonal affective disorder is that it remains undiagnosed and untreated in so many Americans who could benefit from treatment. This results in unnecessary suffering and staggering economic costs, in terms of lost productivity.
Medications used to treat major depression, including Zoloft and Viibryd and Paxil, are all potentially effective in treating seasonal affective disorder. But there is one unique treatment for it that has no known, common side effects and seems highly effective. That treatment is bright light therapy.
Bright light therapy involves sitting in front of full-spectrum bulbs (which, however, are housed in a casing to prevent tanning) for a short period of time each day—often as little as 30 minutes in the morning. This seems to increase exposure to those wavelengths of light that are in short supply during the fall and winter months, and reverse the neurochemical changes associated with seasonal affective disorder.
Bright light devices are widely available. Many are no bigger than a hardcover book and run about $150.
For the millions of Americans who have come to dread the change of seasons as a harbinger of a change in their mood and energy levels—not to mention the more serious symptoms of depression—using one of these bright light devices could be as effective as medication in restoring them to well-being.
Dr. Ablow is the author of the upcoming book, "Inside the Mind of Casey Anthony." He is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. Dr. Ablow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His team of Life Coaches can be reached at email@example.com.