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Home / Foray Fit / Winter 2022 Newsletter: Let the Sunshine In
Winter 2022 Newsletter: Let the Sunshine In

Winter 2022 Newsletter: Let the Sunshine In

Considering the Science Behind Light Therapy

In Miami, at this time of year, daylight increases by about 75 seconds a day. In Anchorage, by 5-1/2 minutes a day. Daylight saving time is coming in less than a month on March 13th, but that shift is illusory—the daylight continues to lengthen slowly.

Less daylight leaves many of us feeling a little glum, and between 1.5 and 9% have full-blown seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. (The prevalence is somewhat dependent on latitude.)

Can we counteract the effects of shortened days on mood?

If you Google “light therapy for SAD” you will find that of the first 50 hits, 48 feature the therapeutic benefit of light boxes. Light therapy protocols, many of which are posted by organizations as reputable as the Mayo and Cleveland Clinics, require a person to spend 30 minutes or more every day sitting close to a box which emits bright light. 

While relatively affordable—with prices ranging from $30-200—most of these products have not been clinically validated. 

The Cochrane Library is a UK-based independent organization which systematically reviews the medical literature on more than 200 topics.  Their teams sift through all the research on a particular topic, and filter by quality.  Then they summarize and interpret the findings.  

 In 2019 the Cochrane Review published a systematic review of light therapy, the first of a series of four articles on SAD.

They found evidence of the efficacy of light boxes to be very limited. 

The authors identified 3,745 publications and found precisely one randomized controlled trial that met their criteria.  Even that study, they reported, was not blinded and did not explain why people dropped out and therefore the reviewers thought its usefulness was limited.

They were unable to find any articles comparing the efficacy of light therapy to other strategies such as antidepressants or melatonin.

Light therapy has come to be accepted as a good treatment for SAD without the evidence we expect when we adopt a health recommendation. Here’s the study I’d like to see:

What if we compared a control group using daily light box exposure to a group undertaking an active intervention—the same number of minutes spent outdoors in direct, natural light?  True, some days would be cloudy, but light would still reach our faces.  And an article in American Scientist claims that UV radiation can actually increase on a cloudy day. 

What added advantages would getting outdoors for natural light bring participants? 

First, rather than just parking themselves in front of a light indoors, the participants would be moving –and you know how we feel about that at Foray Design.

Then we can tack on sensory stimulation. You will activate your senses (and brain) in novel ways outside the controlled environment of your home, and—who knows? —you might bump into someone you know.

Finally, light boxes generally don’t provide ultraviolet (UV) light. Prolonged, intense, direct exposure to UV rays can damage skin and promote cataracts and macular degeneration. But the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum provided by natural light—and absorbed naturally out of doors—activates Vitamin D.  (And there is some correlation between Vitamin D deficiency, and depression and anxiety.)  

How could natural light not come out ahead?

And the price is right – sunlight is free.

An image of Dr. Patricia Kavanagh founder of Foray Design

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