While there is plenty of media coverage regarding seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, in adults, children are often left out of the picture. The truth is that SAD affects children just as it does adults, particularly those who live in areas that are far from the equator.
SAD is a type of major depressive disorder whose symptoms appear when the days grow shorter in the fall and winter. The symptoms generally subside in the spring, when the days grow longer. Because of the great risks related to children and youth taking antidepressant medications to treat anxiety or depression, researchers found light therapy for children to be a safe, effective treatment alternative.
Circadian Rhythms and Depression
While the exact causes of depression and its subtypes are not fully known, scientists have found a link between the mental health disorder and circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are the body’s response to light and darkness. These responses contribute to:
- The release and production of hormones
- Mental health
- Sleep-wake cycles
- Heart rate
- Body temperature
- DNA repair
- Protein synthesis
A 2012 article published in the Journal of Neural Transmission states that the discovery of “clock genes,” the biological clocks present in various cells throughout the body, may lead to circadian rhythm abnormalities. Researchers believe that these abnormalities show the relationship between depressive symptoms and sleep disorders, as abnormal sleep patterns may increase the risk of depressive episodes, as well as negatively affect emotional and cognitive regulation, metabolism, and hormonal balances.
Using Light Therapy for Children
When eyes see light, they send signals to the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the brain’s hypothalamus. These signals trigger the production of various hormones, including serotonin and melatonin, which make a body feel alert or sleepy. During the fall and winter, when the eyes see less natural light during the day, the body’s altered serotonin and melatonin production may affect sleep-wake cycles and alter moods. Scientists hypothesize that light has a neurotrophic influence on neurons, and a prolonged decrease in light impairs the brain’s noradrenergic-locus coeruleus system, immune system regulation and neurohormones.
Studies found that white and blue wavelengths in light therapy products mimic the wavelengths found in natural light. In individuals with SAD and other depressive disorders, researchers found that the benefits produced by bright light therapy mimicked those produced by antidepressant medications. Light therapy, however, did not carry the same risks or side effects of antidepressants.
Light therapy is as simple as using a phototherapy product for at least 30 minutes a day in the morning or afternoon. Along with psychotherapy, light therapy is one of the safest forms of treatment for children and youth who experience depression, as it is well tolerated and effective.
Increasing a child’s exposure to bright light is a proven simple, effective way to help relieve depressive symptoms, particularly those related to seasonal changes in daylight. Parents should always consult with a child’s pediatrician regarding observed symptoms to determine the best course of treatment. Medical professionals can also advise regarding the best type of light therapy product to use and when to use them.
[Photo from LadyDragonflyCC - >;< via CC License 2.0]