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The down & dirty on women's wellness
Lighten up: Brighten UP!
Lighten up: Brighten UP!
December 1, 2019
Ah, winter in the Pacific Northwest! There is nothing quite so jolly as a day filled with utter grey. Unless, of course, you consider a cold day filled with utter grey and a dozen scattered showers of frigid rain. When I think of Washington winters, I think of hibernation. I just want to stay inside. My beloved outdoor activities are disrupted, and I rush from car to house and car to clinic without pausing long outside. This winter, I am rekindling my love of heated seats and I am reveling in the glory of our FAR infrared sauna that heats me to my very marrow & penetrates my tissue with its warmth as quickly as the cold winter wind seems to whip into my bones when I go outside. At the clinic, we are all in line for our turn in the sauna, and we are also all fighting for time and space in front of our medical and medicinal full-body red and near infrared light unit. If you pass the clinic at night, you will notice the warm, rosy glow emitted from the window of the redlight room. The room pulses with the lifeblood of What Will Get Us Through These Bleak Winter Days. Seasonal Affective Disorder is so common in our region, particularly in women, that it is often referenced cavalierly, almost as though it is a given that any one of us might have it. And Seasonal Affective Disorder, or, very aptly, SAD, is indeed something that affects a large percentage of women in Washington State, but it is often also misunderstood. SAD is not the desire to, for God’s sake, just have a single sunny day. It is not being sick of the grey sky and the rain. It is not longing for the warmth of summer.
Rather, SAD is a form of major depression that sets in most commonly in the fall as the seasons begin to change and the days grow shorter. When it is colder out and when the suns shines for fewer hours in the day, there is significantly less exposure to natural light, in part because we are all thinking of hibernation and spending significantly less time outside. For 10% of us, this will result in a shift in our brain chemistry that causes depression.
Current treatments for SAD are similar to treatments for other forms of clinical depression, including psychotherapy and antidepressant medications. Some people with SAD try lamps that shine bright artificial light, which is intended to mimic the sun and decrease darkness in the home and workplace. Emerging clinical research is also showing potential for treating SAD and depression with natural light treatments, like red and near infrared (NIR) light therapy.
“Red light therapy”, otherwise known as photobiomodulation, is used to describe natural light treatments that most often include red and near infrared wavelengths. For mental health treatment, NIR wavelengths may be most effective in treating depression, because they can reach deeper into body tissues than red light. When NIR light from a clinical light therapy device shines on a person’s head, those wavelengths are actually able to go beyond the surface of the skin, reaching the brain and affecting brain cells directly. Natural light is absorbed by cell mitochondria, which boosts cerebral metabolism, improves function, and decreases inflammation, according to cutting-edge depression research. More natural light for your brain cells has also been found to improve the metabolic capacity of your neurons, increase oxygen consumption, and boost cells’ ATP energy production, all of which simply means that it makes your brain work more efficiently and effectively.
Research has shown that, as an adjunct treatment or a stand-alone treatment, photobiomodulation is highly effective for treating (and preventing) all forms of major depression, including SAD. The leading psychiatric researchers at Harvard University and UCLA who are studying the impact of photobiomodulation on depression have concluded that the intervention is a safe and extremely effective treatment modality. A 2018 study demonstrated that two 20-minute sessions of direct exposure to a natural red and NIR light unit weekly over a period of eight weeks was more effective than medication for managing depression, and further demonstrated that the light therapy, unlike the medication, had no adverse effects. The trial showed that patients who were treated more often, with more total natural light treatments, registered better results than people who did fewer treatments, indicating that, at least in this case, there is no such thing as too much of a good thing. Remarkably, even among the most depressed patients considering suicide, all participants had marked improvement in mood and suicidal thoughts resolved entirely. Additional studies of photobiomodulation have found it effective for treating pain and inflammatory conditions, improving anxious symptoms, decreasing negative thoughts and behaviors associated with obsessive compulsive disorder, improving sleep quality, and enhancing athletic and sexual performance.
You might think, then, that the way to get through the gloom of these winter months is to pop a red light bulb into your nearest socket and go about your day. The benefits, however, are unique to specific wavelengths of red light, with cosmetic improvements (yes, it does that, too!) notable at wavelengths of visible red at 660nm and systemic effects, including overall mood improvement, more consistently observed at a wavelength of 850nm, or a NIR wavelength that is not visible to the human eye. The unit we use in the clinic combines those exact wavelengths to optimize the therapeutic effect. It’s not magic, although it feels and look a lot like magic; it’s science. All this to say: I know it’s cold. I know it’s grey. I don’t want to be outside searching for a glimmer of sunlight anymore than you do. I am inside with my redlight unit dreaming of Hawaii and basking in the glow of the unit’s rejuvenating bliss. Now that we are in the full throng of winter, we are seeing more and more women’s moods begin to deteriorate. Stop by. We’ll warm you up with a cup of tea and welcome you to enjoy a book near our fire. And, we’ll leave the light on for you.