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LIGHT AND YOU

Are you feeling a foreboding of winter? Are you unusually tired orirritable? Do you find yourself avoiding friendly gatherings or indulgingin the urge to hibernate? Could it be short days and long nights aremaking you feel SAD?

SAD is an acronym for "Seasonal Affective Disorder" more commonly knownas the "Winter Blues." This disorder occurs primarily in winter monthswith a higher incidence in the northern latitudes. Although duringextended cloudy summer weather many people report SAD symptoms.About 20% of people living in the northern latitudes find that duringcloudy weather or during the winter months their cognitive skills are notas sharp and they have considerably less energy. An everyday task takeslonger to complete. Craving sweet or starchy foods and gaining weight isnot uncommon. Some people experience a change in their sleep patterns,for example, you might sleep two extra hours each night during the wintermonths, and yet still feel tired.

Light plays a major role in our well being, as does the food we eat, theair we breathe, and the water we drink. When the sun begins to rise inthe morning the light that makes its way through our eyelids has atremendous impact on our body. This morning light is recognized by thepineal gland located in our brain. This gland then secretes a chemicalcalled serotonin and reduces the production of a chemical calledmelatonin. Melatonin is the hormone that our body produces to help ussleep, while serotonin regulates our mood and energy. Serotonin andmelatonin work together in managing important aspects of our physiology.

Serotonin and melatonin affect immunity, pain, digestion, sleep, bodytemperature, blood pressure, blood clotting, and daily body rhythms.Bright light and the amount of time we are exposed to it can affect ourserotonin and melatonin levels. Energy level, alertness, mood, pain,sleep/wake cycle, and the ability to control our weight and appetite areall affected by the level of these hormones. Increasing serotonin levelsis one way to achieve better health.

Exposure to bright light, known as light therapy, has been proven to bean effective method of combating those "Winter Blues." The term "lux" isused when discussing light therapy. Lux is a measurement of illumination.In our homes we have 200 to 300 lux. A well-lit office may have 500 lux,whereas a sunny day produces 50,000 to 100,000 lux. Light boxes aredesigned to have an output of 10,000 lux. Full spectrum light is notnecessary since intensity is the key factor, but a balanced-spectrumlight minus the UV-B emissions is considered ideal and more comfortableto the eyes. The light box is placed on a table in front of the user atthe recommended distance for the desired intensity. The key to placementis that the light shine into the user's eyes. A person using the box willsit in front of a unit for a given length of time each day. Usually anexposure of 15 to 45 minutes per day is effective. Bright light exposureis likely to enhance serotonin and alleviate some symptoms when used atany time during the day. However, the most success is achieved byidentifying how the change in daylight has shifted the person's daily(circadian) rhythms, particularly the sleep cycle. Most people withseasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.) show changes in their sleep/wakepatterns and melatonin levels, which can be regulated by bright light.

Winter blues sufferers tend to show two common shift patterns in theirsleep phase: sleep delayed or sleep advanced. About 80% of sufferers show the sleep delayed pattern. Their melatoninproduction and sleep periods begin later at night, and move into thenormal morning waking hours. These people have trouble waking up in themorning, and often never feel fully awake, even if they have slept longerthan usual. This group should use the light box upon waking in themorning.

The sleep advanced are the other 20% who feel best in the morning, thenlose energy steadily through the afternoon. This group often goes tosleep hours earlier than normal. Initially, regular use of a light boxduring the early to late afternoon is best until symptoms disappear. Thenthe user may be able to cut the session time or split a half-hour AMsession into 15 minutes AM and PM. Some care should be taken, as it ispossible to overuse a light box.

What happens when fall arrives and you must wake without the sunlight?When you are awakened with your alarm clock and it is still dark outsideyour body does not know that it is time to arise and shine.

Dawn simulation is one way to eliminate the barbaric wake up in thedark. A dawn simulator is a computerized device attached to a bedsidelamp. About 45 minutes before you choose to awaken a light begins toilluminate. This light gradually fills your room with your own personalsunrise. The pineal gland in your brain registers this light and beginssuppressing melatonin. Therefore, you wake up feeling rested and manypeople wake up naturally without an alarm. Dawn simulation actuallytricks your brain into thinking it is light outside and it is time toawaken. Dawn simulation can be a great help to those people that have adifficult time waking up in the dark.

When first starting light therapy I had some doubts. Could something sosimple really make me feel better? After 4 days of sitting in front of abright light box I was coming alive, like a flower in the springtime.After 2 weeks I was able to eliminate all my antidepressant medications.It has now been 4 years and medications are a thing of the past for me.

The average person responds to light therapy in 2 weeks, but some peopletake up to a month. It is recommended that anyone who sees a seasonalpattern to their condition should have a qualified health professionaldetermine if they may be suffering from SAD. My favorite expression was"I am solar powered," Now I know I really am. I call my light box my"Natural Prozac."


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