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Light Therapy Treatment and Seasonal Affective Disorder

Getting enough sunlight is important for staving off depression.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression related to the change of seasons and typically occurs the same time each year, usually beginning in the fall and continuing through the winter months. “Winter depression” symptoms can include sleeping more, eating more high-carb foods, gaining weight, and feeling fatigued. For those who experience SAD, they can feel it physically as well as emotionally.

Less common is a spring or summer onset of SAD. The symptoms of “summer depression” are inverse to those of winter depression and can include insomnia, loss of appetite, weight loss, and agitation.

Both winter and summer depression are marked by other symptoms of major depression. Feeling depressed most of the time, feeling hopeless or worthless, losing interest in activities previously considered enjoyable, and having difficulty concentrating, can all be symptoms.

So what can be done, and how is light therapy and aromatherapy being used in treatment?

Light therapy is used to treat SAD, as well as other types of depression. The treatment is relatively simple. Patients sit in front of a light box, which emits a full-spectrum bright light, typically for thirty minutes each day. The recommended duration of treatment is generally to continue using the light box well into spring.

Our team sees exceptional results from light therapy with clients. We have long known that getting enough sunlight is important for staving off depression. As it turns out, artificial light helps too, affecting parts of the brain associated with mood and sleep.

Aromatherapy is another treatment approach, which uses fragrant essential oils derived from plants. When inhaled or applied to the skin, these oils can have a positive effect on physical, emotional, or mental well-being. Some of the more common reasons people turn to aromatherapy include managing pain, reducing stress, relieving symptoms of depression, relieving muscle soreness, and improving respiratory health. It is even said to improve concentration and clarity.

While aromatherapy is gaining popularity in general, does it really work? And what have various studies revealed with regard to the impact of aromatherapy on depression?

According to a study conducted at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, brain scans of mice exposed to the scent of jasmine showed an increase in the calming neurotransmitter GABA. Some aromatherapy advocates “suggest that essential oils may affect a number of biological factors, including heart rate, stress levels, blood pressure, breathing, and immune function.”

To determine what other researchers are saying on this matter, a systematic review identified twelve randomized controlled trials dealing specifically with aromatherapy and depression. Five of the studies looked at inhalation therapy, while seven studies evaluated the effectiveness of aromatherapy when used in combination with massage therapy. According to these studies, the aromatherapy/massage combination showed to have more benefits than inhalation therapy alone.

Researchers have identified a number of essential oils that appear to have the most potential for alleviating depression symptoms. These include:

  • bergamot and sweet orange: linked to reducing anxiety and stress

  • lavender: can improve sleep in general and also decrease anxiety, stress, and depression

  • rosemary, rose, and wild ginger: showed benefits for people with depression

  • ylang ylang: can have a positive impact on heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing

  • grapefruit: can alleviate mental exhaustion and fatigue and has been identified alongside other citrus oils in a 1995 study as potentially being “more effective than antidepressants”

Aromatherapy may seem like a simple intervention, and it is. When using essential oils topically, never apply full-strength oils directly to your skin. Instead, add a few drops to an ounce of almond, olive, or coconut oil. If you prefer to inhale the oils, pass an open bottle beneath your nose, or put a few drops in an electric diffuser or a bowl of steaming hot water.

For those who might struggle with SAD, take comfort knowing professional support is readily available. Don’t let fewer hours of daylight impact your joy this holiday season!

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