You know that warm, all-over feeling you get on a crisp spring day when a nice wind is blowing and your body is covered in sunshine?
I haven’t felt that way in about six months.
As someone who has struggled with depression and grew up in Southern California — land of palm trees, carne asada fries, and sunshine — moving from the US to Britain was a shock to the system. Sure, I expected London to be grey and rainy, but I also figured there would be some bright days when I could go outside and bask in the sun. I was wrong.
Thankfully, I’ve found a tool called a light box that appears to have helped me sleep and given my mood a bit of a boost, without costing me a fortune. It works by mimicking the natural light outdoors, something that affects all of us — whether we suffer from depression or not.
Sounds weird, works wonders
Doctors may diagnose people whose depression only crops up when it’s dark out with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). That condition begins and ends at relatively the same time each year. I, on the other hand, appear to have been blessed with plain old depression that simply gets aggravated by long periods without sunlight.
Everyone experiences depression differently, but for me, weeks of darkness tend to coincide with feeling more down and having a harder time falling (and staying) asleep. When it’s been dreary out for a while, I also tend to feel groggy and fatigued during the day regardless of how much I’ve slept.
A few months ago, on a suggestion from my therapist, I looked into something called light therapy. Essentially, it involves sitting or working near a device called a light box, which gives off bright light designed to mimic natural sunlight. The thought of sitting with my face in front of a shining orb for 30 minutes every day sounded ridiculous, but some research about it convinced me to give it a shot.
Light therapy is thought to help reduce symptoms among people with depression, seasonal affective disorder, and even insomnia. One large, recent review of 10 studies involving a total of 458 patients found that for people who took medication for their depression, using a light box in addition to the drugs appeared to help reduce their symptoms and improve their moods.
The universal benefits of sunlight early in the day
Results are typically best when people use light boxes for 30 minutes or more every day, sometime in the morning. That’s because of the way our bodies sync up with the sun — and this can have important takeaways for people without depression, too.
Our eyes have special receptors called melanopsin receptors that help us wake up and stay alert. These soak in the sun — and the sun-like light from light therapy bulbs, which are designed to filter out harmful UV light so they don’t damage your eyes, according to the Mayo Clinic. The receptors also play a role in triggering the release of serotonin in the brain — the neurotransmitter helps regulate everything from our natural sleep cycles to our mood.
Early exposure to bright light appears to help set your circadian rhythm for the day. That’s why studies suggest that taking in some natural rays right after you wake up can help you perform better later into the day and help you sleep at night.
Setting your circadian rhythms straight may have another added benefit, too: weight loss. In addition to helping us wake up and go to bed at the right hour, well-timed circadian clocks seem to help keep our metabolisms running smoothly. One recent study showed that people who basked in bright sunlight within two hours after waking tended to be thinner and better able to manage their weight, regardless of what they ate throughout the day.
Two months after using my bright light box for 30 minutes a day first thing in the morning, my weird-looking habit appears to have helped me sleep. I also tend to feel more energised and peppy during the day. Considering the price I paid for it (roughly $US40 on Amazon), I’d say it was definitely a worthwhile investment.
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