Light Therapy Not Just For Seasonal Affective Disorder

Since it was first described by psychiatric journals in 1984, artificial light therapy has been used successfully to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD).  This therapy is meant to simulate exposure to sunlight in winter months, preventing people with SAD from suffering as much during periods where exposure to sunlight is more limited.  In the past few years, more evidence has suggested that light therapy may be beneficial for other types of depression as well.  In 2005, for example, a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry reported that the effects of light therapy are comparable to those found in many clinical studies of antidepressant drug therapy for mood disorders.

Since our bodies are programmed to be in sync with nature’s rhythms, this concept makes total sense.  If you’re suffering from depression, you will ideally want to make it a point to get outside on winter days for at least 15 minutes at a time.  Otherwise, you can acquire a light box that mimics the rays of the sun, and expose yourself to this light for 20 minutes or more every morning.  Dawn simulators are also a great tool, as you can program them to automatically turn on each morning, gradually getting brighter to replicate the rising of the sun.

Other tools to help get your body in sync with nature’s natural rhythms may also be helpful for depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.  For example, taking physiological doses of melatonin (1 mg or less) at the onset of evening darkness can prepare your body for sleep (without being sedating).  Looking at cortisol and other hormonal fluctuations can also be helpful, as abnormalities in the diurnal output of these hormones can be corrected with natural interventions, making you less prone to mood changes that may be associated with these problems.

Does this mean that if you’re taking antidepressants, you can just go outside for a few minutes every day and be cured? Absolutely not!  You will need to work with your doctor to start implementing light therapy and some of the other recommended changes, and hopefully with time, be able to cut back on your medication.  I think the take home message is that more and more evidence is demonstrating how a disconnection with nature and it’s rhythms can have a profound effect on our mood and overall health.


Processed Foods And Depression

Eating a diet high in processed food increases the risk of depression, research suggests.

What is more, people who ate plenty of vegetables, fruit and fish actually had a lower risk of depression, the University College London team found.

Data on diet among 3,500 middle-aged civil servants was compared with depression five years later, the British Journal of Psychiatry reported.

The team said the study was the first to look at the UK diet and depression.

 The UK population is consuming less nutritious, fresh produce and more saturated fats and sugars 
Dr Andrew McCulloch, Mental Health Foundation

They split the participants into two types of diet – those who ate a diet largely based on whole foods, which includes lots of fruit, vegetables and fish, and those who ate a mainly processed food diet, such as sweetened desserts, fried food, processed meat, refined grains and high-fat dairy products.

After accounting for factors such as gender, age, education, physical activity, smoking habits and chronic diseases, they found a significant difference in future depression risk with the different diets.

Those who ate the most whole foods had a 26% lower risk of future depression than those who at the least whole foods.

By contrast people with a diet high in processed food had a 58% higher risk of depression than those who ate very few processed foods.

Mediterranean diet

Although the researchers cannot totally rule out the possibility that people with depression may eat a less healthy diet they believe it is unlikely to be the reason for the findings because there was no association with diet and previous diagnosis of depression.

Study author Dr Archana Singh-Manoux pointed out there is a chance the finding could be explained by a lifestyle factor they had not accounted for.

“There was a paper showing a Mediterranean diet was associated with a lower risk of depression but the problem with that is if you live in Britain the likelihood of you eating a Mediterranean diet is not very high.

“So we wanted to look at bit differently at the link between diet and mental health.”

It is not yet clear why some foods may protect against or increase the risk of depression but scientists think there may be a link with inflammation as with conditions such as heart disease.

Dr Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said: “This study adds to an existing body of solid research that shows the strong links between what we eat and our mental health.

“Major studies like this are crucial because they hold the key to us better understanding mental illness.”

He added people’s diets were becoming increasingly unhealthy.

“The UK population is consuming less nutritious, fresh produce and more saturated fats and sugars.

“We are particularly concerned about those who cannot access fresh produce easily or live in areas where there are a high number of fast food restaurants and takeaways.”

Margaret Edwards, head of strategy at the mental health charity SANE, said: “Physical and mental health are closely related, so we should not be too surprised by these results, but we hope there will be further research which may help us to understand more fully the relationship between diet and mental health.”