Light-Based Treatments for Jet Lag and Seasonal Affective Disorder

  • BY Lainie Petersen

Winter can be a grim time of year for many of us as we struggle through the cold, short days.  The early sunsets, in particular, can throw off our internal clocks, messing with our sleep and making us feel sluggish. Fortunately, the days begin getting a bit longer after December 21st, bringing things “back to normal” so that we can return to peak functioning.

For some people, time and daylight changes can trigger conditions such as jet lag and seasonal affective disorder. Fortunately, new technologies are making it easier for sufferers, and their doctors, to treat their conditions using light instead of, or in addition to, medications.

A Bit About Jet Lag

Jet lag is a condition suffered by travelers who cross multiple time zones to reach their destination. For many people, its symptoms are relatively mild, but include difficulty going to sleep and waking up at appropriate times, mental fogginess, nausea and headaches. Some sufferers accept these symptoms as an inevitable part of traveling, but for others, particularly people who travel a lot on business, the symptoms can be a major concern as they interfere with a person’s ability to work effectively.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs when the seasons change from fall to winter. People living with SAD may have many of the classic signs of depression, including sadness, irritability and difficulty concentrating. SAD is also characterized overeating and oversleeping, something that distinguishes SAD from other types of Depression.

Light-Based Treatments

Some researchers have found that light can be used effectively to treat both SAD as well as jet lag. While it is still a good idea to protect your eyes when exposed to sunlight, when used properly, light can also help alleviate symptoms caused by seasonal changes as well as movement across time zones. One of the more common light-based treatments is a “light box,” a device that produces full-spectrum, bright light. Individuals in need of therapy can sit in front of these boxes for about 30 minutes at a time. For individuals with SAD, positive effects may become noticeable after a few weeks of treatment.

Re-Timer goggles are a new treatment that incorporate light therapy into wearable goggles, eliminating the need for a separate, bulky light box. Users can wear the goggles as they work  or during travel as a way of preventing jet lag before it sets in. The goggles also differ from light boxes in that they make use of green light, rather than bright, full spectrum light.

A Word of Warning

Before treating yourself for jet lag or, especially, SAD with light boxes, goggles, or other devices, talk to your doctor. SAD is a serious condition and should be treated by a professional: Light therapy may not be appropriate, particularly if you take medications that make you photosensitive. Your doctor can also help you use the light box safely so that you don’t end up with eye strain or damage.  There is also some evidence that jet lag resulting from very long distance trips, such as those that cover six time zones, may not respond well to light therapy, so you may want to talk to your physician about alternative treatments.