4 posts tagged “light therapy”

Is seasonal affective disorder real? Some call it “folk psychology”— others say it’s legit

Posted March 9th, 2018 by

Mental health experts first recognized seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — or depression that follows a seasonal pattern — in 1987. Some recent research has called SAD into question. What’s with the clashing theories? What do U.S. healthcare experts say, as of today? And how do people treat SAD? Read on.

Questioning SAD

Both culturally and clinically, most people have accepted SAD as a type of depression since it was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) about 30 years ago.

But in January 2016, the journal Clinical Psychological Science published the results of a large-scale U.S. survey that questioned the validity of SAD. The authors’ conclusion? “Depression is unrelated to latitude, season, or sunlight. Results do not support the validity of a seasonal modifier in major depression. The idea of seasonal depression may be strongly rooted in folk psychology, but it is not supported by objective data.” The authors recommended that mental health professionals should possibly stop officially recognizing a seasonal aspect in the diagnosis of major depression.

The DSM (diagnostic manual) still includes SAD, but the 2016 survey led some psychological experts to declare that there’s “no evidence that levels of depressive symptoms vary from season to season.” It also caused some confusion about the legitimacy of SAD in the media, and led to headlines like “Seasonal affective disorder is probably a myth” and “SAD doesn’t exist — here’s the science.”

While no one is questioning the validity of depression as a diagnosis or real condition, the 2016 study has muddied the waters around whether depression may be associated with seasons.

Tip: PatientsLikeMe is a great place to track how you’re feeling each day and look back at previous seasons or years to spot any possible trends (and share them with your doctor or provider).

NIHM: SAD is real, let’s tweet about it

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) still considers SAD a legitimate type of depression, and outlines the symptoms, risk factors and treatments here. It’s so real (and important) that they recently hosted a Twitter chat on the topic of SAD (see an archive of the chat here for non-Twitter users). Psychiatrist Matthew Rudorfer, M.D., chief of the Somatic Treatments Program at NIMH, helped answer questions in the chat on Feb. 20.

Some key stats and facts shared in the Twitter chat?

  • The exact causes of SAD are unknown. Researchers have found people with SAD may have imbalance of serotonin, a chemical that affects mood. Their bodies also make too much melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep), and not enough vitamin D.
  • Regionally, the rates of SAD increase with more northern latitude in the U.S. For example, rates of SAD ranges from slightly over 1% in Florida to 9% in New England or Alaska. [The 2015 study NIMH cites seems to contradict the findings of the 2016 survey that found no correlation with latitude or season.]
  • SAD typically hits in the late fall and early winter and goes away during the spring and summer, but depressive episodes linked to the summer can occur (yet they’re less common)
  • SAD is diagnosed four times more often in women than men.

The bottom line? “Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression, a serious illness,” NIHM says. “If you or someone you know may have depression, talk to a health care provider. Don’t try to treat depression on your own with dietary supplements or other products.”

NIMH says there are four major types of treatment for SAD, which may be used alone or in combination (talk with a doctor or licensed mental healthcare provider to make a treatment plan):

  • Medication
  • Light therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Vitamin D

On PatientsLikeMe, more than 800 people say they have seasonal affective disorder, with nearly 200 of them saying SAD is their primary condition. The treatment that members with SAD have reported the most frequently is light therapy.

Interestingly, some publications that labeled SAD “folk psychology” back in 2016 shared a different message following the recent NIMH Twitter chat about SAD: “It’s real — and it’s serious.”

What’s your experience with SAD or seasonal depression? Do you think SAD is its own type of depression? Join PatientsLikeMe to talk about topics like this with with our mental health community, including 20,000+ people living with depression.

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Light therapy for depression: What is it, and how does it work?

Posted January 31st, 2018 by

Bright light therapy is a treatment that’s become increasingly common for treating seasonal affective disorder, a condition that impacts many during the winter months. We sat down with our in-house research specialist to discuss light therapy – what it is, how it works and if it can help treat other types of depression in addition to seasonal affective disorder.

What is light therapy?

Light therapy, sometimes called blue light therapy or light box therapy, involves sitting or working, for a prescribed amount of time, near a device that gives off light that mimics daylight. It’s thought to ease symptoms of depression by impacting brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep.

Light therapy effectiveness: What the research says

While additional studies are needed to fully understand the role of light therapy, so far results from clinical trials investigating the effectiveness of this treatment on people with major depressive disorder (MDD) have been generally positive.

  • One study, involving 50 inpatients with severe MDD, found that when researchers combined the antidepressant venlafaxine with light therapy, recipients experienced “significantly lower HDRS depression scores” than those only taking the antidepressant. The HDRS (Hamilton Depression Rating Scale) is a questionnaire that helps provide an indication of depression severity.
  • Another 8-week trial involving 122 participants living with non-seasonal MDD found that light therapy, both on its own and in combination with the SSRI fluoxetine, was effective and well tolerated in those who participated.
  • Another study found mixed results, highlighting the need for more research to fully understand the role of light therapy

It’s important to note that while these studies showed positive efficacy, researchers still don’t know what “dose” or duration of light therapy is best and for what variations of depression.

Results: What you can expect

Light therapy is unlikely to cure major depression, but it may ease symptoms, especially those related to the season, and might help you feel better. Here’s what some PatientsLikeMe members have said about using light therapy as a treatment:

Check out side effects, dosages and costs members have reported for this treatment.

Choosing a light box

Although you don’t need a prescription to buy a light therapy box, it’s best to ask your doctor or medical health provider if light therapy is a good option for you. Before beginning treatment, you should discuss whether you need to take any special precautions, and what type of light therapy box would best meet your needs so you get the most benefit and minimize side effects. You should also discuss how to introduce light therapy into your treatment regimen. Also, know that health insurance companies rarely cover the cost of this treatment.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a light box should:

  • Provide an exposure to 10,000 lux of light
  • Emit as little UV light as possible

Recommendations for using the light box typically include:

  • Use the light box within the first hour of waking up in the morning
  • 20-30 minutes is generally the recommended amount of time
  • Use at a distance of about 16-24 inches from the face
  • Eyes should be open, but not looking directly at the light

Things to consider:

  • Is it made specifically to treat seasonal affective disorder? Some lights are designed to treat skin disorders, make sure you’re selecting the right one for your needs!
  • How much UV light does it release? UV light can damage your eyes if used incorrectly. Light boxes used to treat SAD should filter out most or all UV light.
  • Is it the style you need? Light boxes come in all shapes and sizes – the effectiveness of light therapy depends on daily use so choose a product that’s convenient for you.

Light boxes are designed to be safe and effective, but they’re not approved or regulated by the FDA so speak with your healthcare provider to understand your options. Read more about things to consider before choosing a product here. Do you use a light box? Share your experience and advice in the comments for choosing a product.

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