Feeling SAD? UBC research boasts benefits of light therapy for winter blues

As students may find their mood dropping with the temperature, UBC research offers light therapy as a potential treatment to brighten your winter semester.

The ‘winter blahs’ or ‘winter blues’ are a mild case of seasonal depression An additional 2-6 per cent experiences seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a subtype of clinical depression that appears in the fall and winter.

As students may find their mood dropping with the temperature, UBC research supports light therapy as a potential treatment to brighten your winter semester.

The ‘winter blahs’ or ‘winter blues’ are a mild case of seasonal depression that affects up to 15 per cent of Canadians. An additional 2–6 per cent experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a subtype of clinical depression that appears in the fall and winter.

The Mood Disorders Centre at UBC provides light therapy as a safe and effective treatment to those with SAD. Dr. Raymond Lam, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Mood Disorders Centre, also published evidence that light therapy can treat non-seasonal depression, though this effect was strongest for those also taking anti-depressants.

Although Vancouver’s heavy rain is commonly associated with dampened spirits, SAD cases are related to latitude rather than local weather patterns, explained Lam.

Those with SAD have a form of jetlag where their internal clock is out of sync with the external environment, according to Lam. This worsens further from the equator due to drastic differences in daytime lengths throughout the year.

Symptoms of SAD appear as days get shorter in the winter and include fatigue, loss of interest and reduced concentration. Light therapy aims to reset the biological clock and alleviate symptoms by exposing patients to bright artificial light for as little as 30 minutes per day.

A light box used for light therapy provides an intensity of 10,000 lux which is between the outdoor light intensity of a cloudy winter day (3,000 lux) and a sunny summer day (10–50,000 lux). In comparison, the light intensity of a bright office is only around 500 lux.

“People with winter blues often feel improved when they do spend more time outdoors during the winter because even on a dull grey day in Vancouver in the winter, it’s probably at least five or six times as bright as the brightest office lights that you can get,” said Lam.

Although light therapy is an effective treatment, the relation between the biological rhythm shift and its corresponding antidepressant effects remains unclear. Researchers have begun investigating the direct effect of light on neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.

Side effects of light therapy are relatively mild with the most common being nausea, dizziness and eye irritation. These can be treated by changing the intensity of the light or the location of the lightbox.

Commercial lightboxes can be found at many retailers, but Lam warns that smaller light boxes may lack the necessary light intensity to be effective. However, people should not treat themselves with light therapy until they are assessed by a qualified health professional.

According to Lam, an early morning pulse of bright light can boast impressive benefits this winter season.

“It really helps people with seasonal depression. It also helps people with winter blues, and so it’s a very simple way to try to improve your energy, fatigue, oversleeping, if you have those problems in the wintertime.”

This article is part of The Ubyssey's neuroscience supplement, Big Brain Time. Pick up our latest print issue on campus to read the full supplement.