Understanding the Relationship Between Light Deprivation and Depression

Light Deprivation and Depression

Have you ever felt less enthusiastic about your personal or professional life during winter? Our moods naturally fluctuate up and down based on our day-to-day lives, but a great deal of our happiness is actually determined by our surroundings.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that occurs when changes in the weather affect our mood. SAD can range from mild frustration and stress to a serious form of depression that limits our ability to be happy and fulfilled.

A variety of factors contribute to seasonal affective disorder. One of the largest, and a factor that scientists are now discovering affects us neurologically in a wide range of ways, is light exposure.

Natural light and mood

One of the topics we’ve covered in detail on this blog is natural light’s relationship with productivity. When your workplace is brightly lit with natural sunlight, you’ll be more productive, on average, than you would if it were lit fluorescently.

The reason for this is simple: natural light has a serious effect on our brain. A recent article in Scientific American shows that this effect isn’t limited to focus and working productivity; it’s also linked to our happiness and personal fulfillment.

SAD manifests in a variety of ways. Some people feel sapped of their energy and lack the motivation and ambition they feel during the sunny, warm summer. Others may feel a serious form of depression linked to lack of light exposure.

Why SAD affects people

Seasonal affective disorder, recently discovered and researched as a serious medical condition, has been widely known throughout Scandinavia and the extreme north of America for decades.

In these settings, winter brings not just cold weather but exceptionally long nights and just a few hours of daylight. As sunlight exposure declines, people suffer from a subsequent decline in mood that affects everything from happiness to productivity.

This suggests that the decline in productivity people experience in workplaces lit by artificial fluorescent lights isn’t simply due to discomfort, but due to a serious effect on their brain’s chemical structure.

Science confirms darkness causes depression

Gary Aston-Jones of the Medical University of South Carolina, who was involved in a recent neuroscience study at the University of Pennsylvania on SAD, thinks that light deprivation plays a significant role in seasonal affective disorder.

Aston-Jones was involved in a study on rats, which were kept in dark conditions for six weeks in order to study their brain chemistry. The scientists noticed a decline in neurons that produce the same chemicals that are absent in depressed humans.

After six weeks of limited sunlight exposure, the total level of neurons that produce serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine – neurotransmitters responsible for such emotions as satisfaction and achievement – declined notably in the rats.

These neurotransmitters are the same ones that decline in humans diagnosed with depression. Lack of natural light, whether due to seasonal changes or an unhealthy workplace environment, could be a leading cause of depression in humans.

Disruptions to your body clock

One of the most notable causes of seasonal affective disorder is a disruption to your body’s circadian rhythm. We’ve studied this topic on this blog before, noting that an excessive amount of artificial light can contribute to sleep issues and insomnia.

If you work in an office or work environment with fluorescent lighting, it could be not just contributing to poor productivity or inefficiencies, but to sleep issues and seasonal affective disorder.

Avoiding SAD at work

Seasonal affective disorder is most pronounced and obvious in regions with warm, light summers and dark, cold winters. The greater the difference between seasons, the bigger the change in mood is likely to be.

Despite the prevalence of SAD in areas with limited sunlight during winter, it’s also possible that unhealthy workplaces could contribute to SAD. Spending long hours at work, particularly under fluorescent lighting, could hasten its development.

Although the science isn’t yet completely settled regarding artificial lighting’s role in the development of SAD, it is fairly conclusive regarding natural light’s essential role in the healing process.

At the heart of SAD treatment is light therapy: a treatment in which people affected by SAD sit a few feet from a brightly lit box. The light mimics the sun and provokes a neurological reaction that causes SAD-related neurotransmitter suppression to end.

While light therapy mimics natural sunlight, at work it’s possible to avoid SAD in the first place through natural light. Fill your workplace with natural light, via skylights or large exterior windows and an open layout, to prevent it from occurring at all.

The future of seasonal affective disorder

Neuroscientists are studying seasonal affective disorder in depth, and it’s likely we will learn more about it over the coming decade. Natural light, neglected in design and healthcare for too long, is finally being seen as the important element it is.

From your home to your workplace, the importance of natural light – not just in its ability to lower your bills and increase productivity, but in terms of both mental and physical health – is finally being discovered by the medical community.

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