As the days get shorter, some of us will start feeling increasingly fatigued and lethargic with less energy or interest in doing anything. It’s labelled the Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD for short) and it’s a form of depression. So, can indoor tanning help beat the winter blues? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

SAD seems to be the result of a hormonal imbalance caused by the lack of enough sunlight as the winter drags on. Melatonin may be key. This hormone, which helps regulate sleep, is supposed to be highest at night and its levels taper off by daybreak. But if the rhythm is off and the levels are too high in the morning, that may be the cause of the tiredness and depression that people with SAD feel.

Strong enough sunlight at the start of the day would help to reset our internal clock and reset the proper melatonin levels, but the sun really may not be present or strong enough during our fall and winter.

So, what to do? You could consider a light box after discussing it with your doctor. These devices provide regular white light with the ultraviolet and blue tones screened out. The light, at an intensity of 10,000 lux, matches sunlight approximately 40 minutes after sunrise on a sunny day. It’s thought that the light stimulates receptors in our retina to reset our internal clocks. On the other hand, indoor sun-tanning uses ultraviolet rays to cause a suntan. It has no effect on our internal clock and has been shown to significantly increase the risk of all forms of skin cancer which is why access has been increasingly regulated recently. It won’t help you to deal with SAD.

So, if you think you might be developing a case of SAD, talk to your doctor about whether light therapy using a light box is right for you. Remember not to stare into the light. Reflected light is safe and more than adequate. You’ll need about 30 minutes a day for about a week or two to see if it will help. Some people get uncomfortable with that much and may get headaches and nausea and fell jittery. Some people may need more time. Some people unfortunately won’t find that it helps and may need medication to get through the winter without being severely depressed. The light should be used in the morning soon after you awaken.

Remember that getting enough sleep, exercising and eating right are all still important and the light box can’t replace them in your life.

Dr. Mitch Shulman is an Assistant Professor, Dept. of Surgery, McGill Medical School and an Attending Physician, Emergency Department, McGill University Health Centre. He’s also the CJAD AM 800 Medical Consultant.

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