This is Part Two of a series dealing with depression in which we will explore a variety of lifestyle changes that can help combat the effects of depression; these changes include exercise, exposure to sunlight, better diet and sleep, and social connections. Part Two focuses on the benefits of light exposure.
Part Two: Let the Light Shine In
There’s nothing like a sunny day to help lift our spirits. Even if we aren’t depressed, we can feel our mood and energy get a boost when we step outside into the sunshine. And it isn’t a coincidence.
“Our brains and bodies evolved in an outdoor environment bathed in sunlight,” says Dr. Jeffrey Rossman, a clinical psychologist and Director of Life Management at the Canyon Ranch Health Resort in Lenox, MA “Our eyes have special light receptors, connected directly to the middle of the brain, that respond only to the brightness of outdoor light. That light, absorbed by the eyes, stimulates the release of neurotransmitters and hormones that regulate mood, sleep, and energy.”
Our ancestors didn’t spend their days cooped up in windowless offices never catching a single ray of daylight. They most likely spent most of their waking hours outdoors searching for food and performing other daily tasks. But since we spend much less time outside than our ancestors our rates of depression and sleep disorders have raised dramatically.
What is the solution? One possible answer is to get outside every day. And while sunny days provide the best results, the natural daylight of a gloomy day is better than staying indoors. Rossman says: “Typical indoor lighting is 100 times less bright than outdoor light on a sunny day. Even a cloudy day delivers ten times more brightness than ordinary indoor lighting.” He suggests, “In order to receive the mood-enhancing effect, the light needs to be absorbed through your eye, so do not wear sunglasses. You do not need to look up at the sun. Simply being outdoors will enable you to absorb the light you need.” Several studies suggest that exposure to light appears to lessen depression in some people within one week, while depression medications can take up to several weeks or more to work.
SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder is depression that occurs primarily during the winter months when the days are shorter, colder and cloudier. Rossman says while exposure to bright light has been used to treat SAD for 25 years, “over fifteen controlled studies have demonstrated that bright light is helpful for people suffering from non-seasonal depression… In fact, people with a variety of other conditions, including PMS, depression during pregnancy, bulimia, and insomnia, have also shown improvement from exposure to high intensity light.”
Another possible solution is to use a light therapy box. The renowned Mayo Clinic offers extensive information on light box therapy on their website.
They discuss important aspects of light therapy including what type of light box to choose, as well as some cautions for those suffering from bipolar disorder since “light therapy may trigger mania in some people with bipolar disorder.” Using a light therapy box usually entails sitting in front of the light for a certain period of time at the same time daily. If you have questions, it is recommended you consult a physician before starting with light box therapy.
Whether you use a light box or a daily walk outside, bright light is a helpful tool to combat depression.
Dr. Rossman describes utilizing sunlight as “the easiest way to fight depression. And to get the most benefit, he suggests, “Walking outside on a sunny day is an ideal way to combine exercise, light exposure, and the beauty of nature.”
Mayo Clinic staff. “Light Therapy”, March 20, 2013.
Rossman, Jeffrey. “The Easiest Way to Fight Depression.” Women’s Health. January 5, 2011.