March 23, 2021

EPSTEIN |Get Your Daily Sun

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Why investing in a sunlight simulator may help brighten your day in more ways than one.

Spring has finally sprung with the weekend kicking off the season. That’s really good news for the 5% of Cornell students who may suffer from seasonal depression, defined in the DSM as major depression following a seasonal pattern.

While often associated with the transition from fall to winter, seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD, can occur at any point of seasonal change with a significant amount those affected showing symptoms during the transition from winter to spring. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association, SAD affects over 5% of adults in the United States, with a majority being young adults and women, and lasts for 40% of the year. Even though SAD is thought to account for nearly 10% of all major depression diagnoses, as described by Harvard Health Publishing, the cause of SAD is unknown. Most psychologists largely attribute the symptoms associated with the disorder (apathy, irritability, lack of enthusiasm, and general sadness) to issues caused by an offset circadian rhythm. The working hypothesis of the U.S. National Library of Medicine is that reduced levels of sunlight throw off the circadian rhythm resulting in decreased serotonin and higher levels of melatonin, causing significant mood changes.

If something about these symptoms resonated with you and you think you haven’t been getting enough sunshine, seasonal depression may be the culprit. And while the weather has been exceedingly nice in Ithaca recently, for the Cornellians enjoying their year of studying on campus, don’t let your guard down immediately. While it’s important to get sun when possible to boost your mood, sometimes it may just not be feasible in Ithaca. Spring can bring more rain, snow, and very chilly days as average monthly low temperatures for March and April range from as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit.  

One way of getting enough sun when the clouds are just not letting up is an artificial sunlight simulator. Only a small amount of exposure to sunlight, even if completely artificial, can be a powerful way to combat the symptoms that come as the seasons change. There’s been significant research done over the past few decades that supports the hypothesis that by just making time for a bit of consistent exposure to artificial natural light, or “light therapy,” sufferers of SAD experience significant improvement in having more energy, more drive, and being able to enjoy life more during the season in which their symptoms flare up. 

A review of light therapy in BJM Journals looked over 23 studies, and found that across the board light therapy has shown to correlate with elevated mood and general alleviation of symptoms in those who suffer annually from SAD. The benefits of light therapy don’t stop there. One particularly interesting study published in National Center for Biotechnology Information in 2019 found that consistent use of light therapy can even help those suffering from psychiatric disorders beyond SAD, such as eating disorders, bipolar disorder, ADHD and, “disorders that have symptoms which vary seasonally or are prone to depressive symptoms.”

Say you’re interested in giving light therapy a try. What’s the first step? 

Consulting a medical professional and getting a diagnosis should always be the first course of action, but beyond that, the only required equipment for light therapy is a lamp, an outlet, and some time in which said lamp can shine on you. 

The lamps themselves are both cheap and easy to use — smaller lamps can be bought from accessible retailers such as Amazon for as low as $20. Additionally, there are a number of large lamps running from $100-$300 that can be bought from medical providers, which health insurance covers with a seasonal depression diagnosis. 

The best time to begin using whichever lamp you end up choosing, according to The University of British Columbia’s Department of Psychiatry, is early in the morning, as soon after waking up as possible, preferably starting with the onset of symptoms. It’s important to note that you should give yourself enough time for the light to shine on you according to the light output of your lamp — most light is prescribed at 10,000 lux (a measurement of the strength of light emitted) which is most optimal around a half an hour to an hour, according to the University of Michigan’s Health Library. Response to the therapy usually starts within a few days to around two weeks. 

So, whether you’ve been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder or are just curious about what artificial sun might be able to do for you, think about giving light therapy a shot. And in any case, enjoy the real thing when you can.

Joshua Dov Epstein is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, and can be reached at [email protected] His column, Heterodox, appears every other Tuesday this semester.