Do SAD lamps really uplift your winter spirits? - (12/14/2021)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

"Where is the sun?” Harv asked the pharmacist. "It's 4 PM, and it's already getting dark outside." "Daylight Savings Time is over for the winter," replied the pharmacist. "Now we are cloaked in dreary winter gloom until spring." "Well, I don't like it!" snapped Harv. "It makes me feel sad." "Then, why not buy a SAD lamp?" recommended the pharmacist. "You know, a light that might make you happier." 

SAD stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder, a mood condition in which a person tends to experience depressive symptoms at the same time each year, usually during the winter. Common symptoms include sleeping too much, having little to no energy, and overeating. Taken to an extreme, SAD can result in loss of concentration and interest in activities, feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, nausea, suicidal thoughts, and weight gain. About 1 in 5 people experience SAD, with those living farther north being hit the hardest.   

A SAD lamp, also called a sun lamp, or light therapy box, is a unique fixture that mimics natural outdoor light. Light therapy can effectively treat this disorder. "We carry a few SAD lamps here in the pharmacy," said the pharmacist. They can also be purchased in big box stores and online. These lamps are not like the lighting you use in your living room. They are specialized units. Read the product description before buying: they are best for people with mild to moderate SAD and provide 10,000 lux light if you sit 12 to 18 inches away from its 10-inch surface. The lamp filters out more than 99% of ultraviolet rays for safety and features "quick-change" bulbs for easy maintenance. An effective SAD lamp costs around $100. For many people, light therapy works well, with most experiencing mood improvement within one to two weeks. To avoid relapse, continue light treatment through the end of the winter.  

"Do I have to buy a SAD lamp?" asked Harv. "No, if your symptoms are very severe – such as those seen with true depression – then perhaps you should see your doctor about an antidepressant," suggested the pharmacist. "If you don't want to go that route, you can make your environment more inviting." That might include keeping your house well-lit in the evening, exercising regularly, eating better – not sitting on the couch in front of the TV with a big bowl of mac and cheese on your lap – or taking a brisk walk outdoors every day. Also. the medical literature reports some benefit in taking vitamin D supplements, but only in those who are lacking that vitamin. A test exists to measure the vitamin D in your blood.  

"Can I use the tanning bed at my spa?” Harv asked. "Nope, it's the wrong wavelength, and it can cause some types of cancer," responded the pharmacist. "Should I spend the winter in South America?" Harv joked. "Hey, when it's winter in the Northern Hemisphere, it's summer in the Southern Hemisphere. If you can afford to hang out in Rio de Janeiro until Easter, then go for it," shot back the pharmacist. "Maybe I could get a dog," Harv mused. "Your best idea yet!" exclaimed the pharmacist. "You have been mentioning that you wanted a dog. If you are serious, lots of pets need good homes!" Note that if you adopt a pet, then you should be ready to take care of it.

The pharmacist thinks that Harv has many options to whisk away his winter doldrums. However, anyone who is seriously affected by SAD, or any symptoms of depression, should consult with a physician or nurse to get the proper care that person may need. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press.


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