Lighting Up Winter Blues Light Therapy Successfully Counters Seasonal Affective Disorder
When Sherrie Baxter moved to Washington 20 years ago from Oklahoma, she noticed her energy and moods plunged during the winter months.
“It was a really gloomy feeling,” she said. “It felt real oppressive and closed as if the clouds were coming in on the telephone poles. I remember feeling really sad. I remember crying at the Christmas songs in the stores. I wanted to sleep all the time.”
Her symptoms disappeared after she enrolled in a light therapy study at Oregon Health Science University in Portland. Six years ago, Baxter started Enviro-Med, a company that manufactures bright-light boxes.
Last year, her business tripled. And she said insurance companies are now paying for 10 percent to 20 percent of the boxes purchased.
Baxter is not only the company president but she keeps one of her light boxes at home.
“I’m happy living in the Northwest now,” Baxter said cheerfully on a overcast, gray Friday. “Basically, using the light gave five months out of the year back to me.”
Light therapy is not cheap. Enviro-Med’s Bio-Light Ultra boxes cost $299. Most light boxes cost between $300 to $500.
But Baxter said insurance companies are finding it’s cheaper to shell out a couple of hundred dollars or a light box than to pay for antidepressants and counseling.
Light therapy usually involves sitting within two feet of a light box for 30 to 45 minutes a day. The boxes produce 20 times the brightness of indoor lighting.
On a sunny day a person is exposed to about 100,000 lux - the measure for light intensity. An average room in a home and offices have between 300 to 400 lux. Bio-Light Ultra boxes have the light intensity of 10,000 lux.
Blue Cross of Washington and Alaska, which insures about 850,000 people, will pay for the treatment if it is prescribed by a doctor, said the company’s spokeswoman Keri Buster.
“We don’t have any numbers,” she said, “but yes it is much cheaper to go with the boxes than medication, if they are effective. But we don’t have many ordered. Most are in Alaska.”
Baxter allows people to try the boxes for a month. If they don’t like them, they can return the boxes and get their money back, minus $45. She said only 7 percent are returned. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or winter depression, is estimated to affect about 15 percent of Portland-area residents, with about 5 percent severely effected, said Dr. Katherine H. Thomas, who is the director of the Winter Depression Clinic at OHSU. It effects about twice as many women as men, she said.
The symptoms usually begin in September and October and disappear by April or May. Winter depression appears to be hitting people especially hard this year, she said. Last year’s long, hard winter has people dreading the season.
People who live in northern states, where winter days are shorter, are most effected by the disorder. In Alaska, about 25 percent are believed to suffer from winter depression, she said.
And people who moved to Portland from sunnier states, such as California or New Mexico, seem to be especially sensitive to Seasonal Affective Disorder, she said.
The timing and amount of light exposure causes shifts in the body’s circadian rhythm, or internal 24 hour clock.
“Light in the early morning hours sets our body clock to the environment,” Thomas said.
“When we lack that early morning light, people with winter depression drift to a later time. The delayed body clock produces symptoms of winter depression.”
The symptoms include excessive sleeping, irritability, sadness, and sweets and carbohydrate cravings.
“One man said he finally understood what women were talking about with PMS,” Thomas said.
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