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Light therapy a ‘natural Prozac’ for winter depression
By Sheri Lundstrom          About the Author

Winter means “the blues” for many people. And for as many as 30 percent of Minnesotans, shorter days mean a flare-up of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or subsyndromal SAD. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a mood disorder caused by the lack of light in winter.

    Here’s some tips for combating the blues or depression:

        * Walk or play outside regularly, glancing at the sky (but not the sun) to get sunlight.
        * Exercise regularly.
        * Manage stress.
        * Don’t hole up.
        * Share feelings with family and friends. Or talk with a counselor.
        * Use supplements as needed to combat stress and depression.
        * Get enough sleep.
        * Brighten your house and work environment with light and brighter decorating.
        * Eat the right mix of protein and carbohydrates for you.
        * Consider a dawn simulator device to awaken naturally.

    For those with SAD or subsyndromal SAD, the list might also include:

        * Consider light therapy, which has been well documented by the National Institute of Mental Health and leading researchers to help seasonal affective disorder.

How do you know if you have seasonal affective disorder? Symptoms include changes in appetite, weight gain, drop in energy levels, reduction in sex drive, change in sleep/wake patterns, reduction in quality of sleep, body aches and pain, avoidance of social situations, decreased creativity, irritability, inability to complete tasks and sometimes suicidal thoughts. However, the key indicator for SAD is that the depression hits year after year at approximately the same time. Usually symptoms appear sometime in fall and remit sometime in the spring. However, some persons with SAD are affected whenever there are several overcast days in a row regardless of season. And in some people who work shift work or in other work situations where they hardly see light, SAD can occur in any season.

Since childhood I have had SAD, but it was only a couple of years ago that I received help for it through light therapy. Over the years I have been diagnosed with hypoglycemia, post traumatic stress syndrome, digestive problems with no known cause, major depression and fibromyalgia.

For nearly two years, I went the traditional medication route with Zoloft, a drug in the Prozac family. Zoloft began losing its effectiveness and I wanted to get to the root of the problem.

Finally I heard of light therapy and tried a light unit. Within four days I was feeling new life come back into me. This started a new era for my health; all my other illnesses have mysteriously disappeared. Since then I have felt moved to share my story with others who have SAD or fibromyalgia and help others get information about light therapy. I would also like to help health care providers learn more about SAD and light therapy. Many people have vaguely heard of light therapy and read about it in Readers Digest or Consumer Reports or other publications, but don’t know where to find products or information.

Dawn Simulator
My day starts with a bedside light gradually turning on by a small computerized device called a dawn simulator. This light exposure wakes me up naturally without the harsh blare of an alarm clock. What’s happening is that the pineal gland in the brain registers this light and begins secreting serotonin. Research subjects have shown marked improvement in energy , mood, social interest, productivity, quality of sleep and quality of awakening with dawn simulation. The dawn simulator is wonderful for anyone, not just those who have seasonal affective disorder. It is especially good for shift workers, school children and teens (whose natural clocks aren’t set to get up for school!), travelers dealing with jet lag and confirmed night owls. Yes, it’s more expensive than an alarm clock, but some consider it an investment in long-term mental and physical health as well as a more natural way to wake up than alarm clocks and caffeine.

Light Box
Once awake I use a bright light box . Light boxes are a specially designed light unit with an output of 10,000 lux. Generally, light therapy takes about a half hour each morning during the patient’s SAD season, as it does for me. Sometimes this treatment is coupled with other methods of treatment similar to those of other major depressive disorders. I personally was able to discontinue antidepressants.

How could something as simple as light make such a major difference to me and others? The answer is that light plays such a major role I in the production of serotonin. Serotonin influences important aspects of our physiology, including body temperature, blood pressure, blood clotting, immunity, pain, digestion, sleep and daily body rhythms. Bright light raises serotonin levels in the brain, producing this “natural Prozac.” Buildings with no outside windows, cloudy days, short winter days and stress all contribute to reduced levels of serotonin. It’s easy to see why Minnesotans increasingly have a serotonin-depleted society.

Research is showing that light therapy helps many conditions associated with lack of serotonin: sleep disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, insomnia, eating and bingeing, chronic pain, etc., as well as SAD. The results have often been dramatic. One study showed bulimics using light therapy reduced episodes by 50 percent. Another study involved great improvement for detoxified alcoholics receiving light therapy. Bright light therapy is included in therapeutic recommendations of the American Psychiatric Association. Some insurance companies have begun covering it as a medical expense.

The research and some other information mentioned are discussed in more detail in Beyond Prozac by Michael Norden, M.D. and Winter Blues by Normal Rosenthal, M.D.

If you want to awaken more naturally year-round, you may want to research dawn simulators. If you have difficulty with SAD-like symptoms, you may want to research dawn simulators and light boxes. You’ll want to give your health care provider a phone call or visit before trying a light box. If your health care provider isn’t familiar with light therapy, do some research yourself and share the research. By sharing what we learn about light therapy, fewer people with be debilitated each winter by SAD.

Sheri Lundstrom is the previous president of Light Therapy Products. Light box units and dawn simulators are available for purchase. Books about SAD and light therapy are available for purchase.

About the author: Sheri Lundstrom is a SAD sufferer. Because of the major impact these products had on her life, she started Light Therapy Products. Light Therapy Products offers a wide variety of products for enhancing serotonin levels. Light box units, dawn simulators, bulbs, tubes, and books are available for purchase. For Inquiries, please call 651-351-9800.

This article was published in the November 1997 issue of Twin City Wellness.

Articles are posted for informational purposes only. All articles are reprinted by permission of their respective publisher. Further reproduction without permission by the publisher is prohibited.

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