Shining a Light on Therapy that Might Help SAD Sufferers

As winter approaches, psychiatrist explains SAD symptoms and offers potential treatments

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Written by Laura Kelley on November 7, 2022
What You Need To Know

Winter’s onset means progressively fewer hours of daylight. For many, this change is hard to adjust to, triggering depressed or just unsettled feelings. A CU Anschutz expert on seasonal affective disorder shares ways people can combat SAD.

As the time changes and the dark days of winter settle in, many people may start feeling the impacts of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Even in Colorado, where we see more sun than most states, SAD is an ongoing problem for many residents and can severely impact their professional and personal relationships if left untreated.

Kyle Baird, DO, is the associate medical director of the Outpatient Psychiatry Clinic and the associate program director of the Psychiatry Residency Training Program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. He has spent a large part of his career working with patients who suffer from SAD.

Below, Laura Kelley, media relations professional in the CU Anschutz Office of Communications, speaks to Baird about how to recognize the symptoms of SAD and how there might be a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to treatment.

Q&A Header

What are the top five symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

We tend to see similar symptoms that we see in clinical depression. Low mood, low energy, loss of motivation, disruption in sleep cycle (often sleeping too much in the case of SAD) and lack of interest in activities a person usually enjoys. This pattern tends to develop over time and usually peaks in December and January.

What can people do to help combat SAD?

It’s important to maintain physical activity. Maintain your workout routines and try to get outside to take a short walk even on a cloudy day because you’re still getting the positive light impact. In addition, it’s important to keep your regular sleep schedule so that there’s less disruption to your circadian rhythm. Make sure to seek professional help if the symptoms are severe or persistent and begin impacting your work life and relationships.

You've worked a lot with light therapy. How can that help SAD?

When the time changes, your circadian rhythm is thrown off, which causes your serotonin and melatonin levels to decrease. Additionally in the winter, since there’s less sun, you’re getting less vitamin D. Light therapy can help in many of these cases. We work with patients both in office and at home to provide guidance on the type of light, location and the time-of-day light therapy that is most beneficial.

There are several products on the market, so it’s important to do your research to see which one might work best for you. You need to find one that’s at least 7,500 lux up to 10,000 lux. Every product is different, so read the directions on the package. Typically, you will want to use the light for 20 to 30 minutes a day, keep it 1-1/2 feet to 2 feet away from your face, and work it into your morning routine. For example, you could use it while you’re drinking your morning coffee or styling your hair.

What precautions should you take when using light therapy?

Light therapy can make the impact of SAD worse if you’re using it incorrectly or for longer than intended. It could impact your eyes just as the sun does if you’re out for long periods of time on a sunny day without sunglasses. The time of day you’re using it is also important. Never use light therapy right before bed as that will throw off you melatonin and your circadian rhythm which could make SAD worse.

How and when will you know if light therapy is working?

Monitor your symptoms to see if they’re improving. You may see some improvement very quickly even within the first week. Increased energy and feeling more motivated during the day are some indications that it’s working. It could take a full month, though, to feel complete relief. If you’re not seeing any improvements after a month, it’s probably time for other medical interventions and make sure you speak with your doctor.

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Kyle Baird, DO