Light Therapy Useful for Depression During Pregnancy

Even though this sample size of this pilot study was small (N=16), it shows a correlation between light exposure and major depression in pregnancy.  Keep in mind that this study focused on pregnant women with major depression, which is 5% of all pregnant women.  In general, the percentage of pregnant women with all types of depression is closer to 20 percent.

Light Therapy Useful for Depression During Pregnancy

Bright-light therapy may be an effective treatment for depression in pregnant women. The availability of an easy-to-use, potentially non-toxic antidepressant — light therapy — in pregnancy is a clinically attractive option.

The researchers conducted a pilot experiment to see whether exposure to bright light, a technique used to treat those suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or winter depression, might also work on women suffering from depression during pregnancy.

Around 5% of pregnant women meet the criteria for major depression.

However, doctors are often reluctant to prescribe antidepressant medications to pregnant women for fear of their effect on the fetus.

Previous research has suggested that bright light exposure may help people suffering from major depression or from postpartum depression. The exact mechanism has not been elucidated. Some data suggest that light therapy advances the timing of the daily biological clock, which may then bring about the antidepressant effect.

Sixteen pregnant women suffering from major depression completed the pilot study. They were instructed to expose themselves to an hour a day of bright ultraviolet light from a light box within 10 minutes of waking up for three to five weeks.

The patients showed a moderate improvement of their levels of depression after just three weeks of light treatment. For the seven women who underwent five weeks of light therapy, their average score on a scale that measures depression improved by 59%. When the light therapy was discontinued, the women showed signs of an increase in their levels of depression.

American Journal of Psychiatry April 2002;159:666-669

How Sunlight Can Improve Your Mental Health

The association between darkness and depression is well known. Now a new study reveals the profound changes that light deprivation causes in your brain.

Neuroscientists kept rats in the dark for six weeks. The animals not only exhibited depressive behavior but also suffered damage in brain regions known to be underactive in humans during depression.

Further, neurons that produce norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin, which are common neurotransmitters involved in emotion, pleasure and cognition, were observed in the process of dying. This neuronal death may be the mechanism underlying the darkness-related blues of seasonal affective disorder.

The dark-induced effects may stem from a disruption of the body’s clock. When an organism’s circadian system is not receiving normal light, that in turn might lead to changes in brain systems that regulate mood, the lead researcher said.

Scientific American August 2008
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences March 25, 2008, vol. 105 no. 12 4898-4903

Could Your Fatigue be Low Levels of a Simple Vitamin?

Perhaps you’re relying too heavily on caffeinated beverages to get you through the day. Or maybe you’re just suffering silently with that lack of ‘get-up-and-go’. Although there are many causes for fatigue, low levels of this simple vitamin may not only lead to a lack of energy, but also moodiness, nervousness, memory issues, and numerous other concerns.
Dr. Mercola’s Comments:
If you read Daily Sunlight Can Keep Cancer Away earlier this month, you know about the sun’s ability to prevent cancer. But what you may not know is that its influence on your mental health is just as profound.

When the rats in this study were deprived of light, cells in their brains that control emotions like pleasure as well as cognition began to die. In humans, these are also the brain regions that tend to be underactive if you are depressed, suggesting that without any exposure to light, it may be nearly impossible to feel happy.

Why You Need to Get Sunlight, Even as Fall and Winter Are Approaching

You are probably already familiar with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is depression that occurs during the fall and winter months when sunlight is scarce. An estimated 10 million to 12 million people in the United States alone suffer from SAD, while about 25 million Americans suffer from the “winter blues,” a condition not as serious as SAD but still requiring attention.

Both SAD and the winter blues are directly related to a lack of sunlight.

Serotonin (a chemical that helps regulate your mood) levels are low in people with depression and, at least one study has found, also in healthy people during the winter.

Since serotonin levels rise in your brain on days with a lot of sunlight, bright light may boost your mood by activating neurons in your brain that contain serotonin, leading to increased levels of the chemical in your brain, researchers say.

Serotonin neuron activity also tends to be higher on brighter days than darker days, even within the same season. This suggests that levels of serotonin in your brain are directly related to how much sunlight is available on any particular day.

In this most recent study, the researchers also pointed out similar findings.

“There is a high frequency of seasonal affective disorder in high latitudes where light exposure is limited, and bright light therapy is a successful antidepressant treatment,” the researchers said.

The take-home message here?

Getting minimal sunlight for prolonged periods of time can negatively impact your mood.

In most of the United States this tends to occur for a good portion of the fall, spring and winter, so a great number of people could be at risk of sunlight-related mood changes and even depression.

Your Body is Designed to be in the Sun

This is why most of us naturally feel like waking when the sun comes up, and sleeping when it’s dark. These inclinations are regulated by your body’s natural 24-hour cycle, or circadian rhythm, which has evolved over many years to align your physiology with your environment.

Your internal clock does much more than just help you sleep in the evening. Your body actually has many internal clocks — in your brain, lungs, liver, heart and even your skeletal muscles — and they all work to keep your body running smoothly by controlling temperature and the release of hormones, some of which impact your mood.

Your circadian rhythm, meanwhile, depends on receiving sunlight at the appropriate times (during the day) in order to function properly. If you do not get much sunlight when your body is expecting it — for example because you’re inside working all day or the weather is cold and cloudy — it can easily lead to changes in your brain that will negatively impact your mood.

For instance, melatonin, the “hibernation hormone,” increases with decreased light, which explains that tired feeling that comes on when it begins to get dark outside — even if it is only 4:00 in the afternoon.

How to Make Sure You Get the Light That Your Body Craves

In the summer, this is a no-brainer. Spend some time out in the sun. I’ve detailed just how long you should spend in the sun in my upcoming book Dark Deception, and also in this past article.

If you live in many areas of the United States, keep in mind that come late September till late March the sun is lower in the sky for most of the day, which means that a light-skinned person may need longer than 20 minutes in the sun each day, and a dark-skinned person could need one hour to 90 minutes to get all of the benefits of sunlight.

Remember, serotonin, the brain hormone associated with mood elevation, rises with exposure to bright light, and falls with decreased sun exposure. So during the winter months or on days when you can’t get outdoors, it’s really important to make up for this loss of bright light.

You can move to a more ideal climate for the winter but that is impractical for most. Fortunately, there’s a relatively easy way to make up for a lack of sunlight during the winter, and that’s by replacing the light bulbs in your home and office with full-spectrum versions that simulate the qualities of natural outdoor sunlight.

In order to achieve natural balanced sunlight indoors, your light bulbs must contain a full spectrum of color (imagine all the colors of the rainbow). Additionally, true full-spectrum lighting must contain infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths.

I have personally used full-spectrum lighting for years now, and can honestly say that they have provided an enormous boost in my ability to tolerate the often gloomy days where I live (near Chicago).

In fact, I have my entire home lit with these full-spectrum light bulbs.

I don’t consider them a replacement for real sunlight (nothing can do that), but they are the next best thing when the sun is not out, or when it’s too cold to spend time outdoors.

What Else Can You do to Boost Your Mood?

Sunlight is at the top of the list, but beyond that you can do the following to help improve your mood at any time during the year:

Optimize your diet using newly revised Take Control of Your Health nutrition guidelines, in combination with nutritional typing, to determine the foods you need to be eating, in the amounts you need to be eating them.

Pay particular attention to avoiding grains and sugar because of their specific effects on mood.

Have your vitamin D levels tested and get them to their optimal levels.

Get adequate exercise.

Taking a high-quality source of animal-based omega-3 fats such as krill oil.

2 Responses to “Light Therapy Useful for Depression During Pregnancy”
  1. cheryljazzar says:

    Here is an email from a reader who is trying to wean off her medications. She asks for any help offered by professionals reading WellPostpartum Weblog. Of course, practitioners are unable to recommend specific dosages, but a general description of the issues may be helpful.

    She says:

    Here’s what I am on (which has been reduced in quantity and will continue to slowly be):
    Seroquel- 50 mg/day- used at bedtime to induce sleep (insomnia)
    Alprazolam- 1mg/day- used in middle of the night to continue sleep and calm nightime anxiety
    Lexapro- 15mg/day- to treat PPD

    Here’s the supplement I bought and thought I would try- although I read a warning on the label that that concerns me about still be on prescription meds- “This product could potentiate the use of barbituates and central nervous system depressant medications…” Is this referring to illicit drugs or prescription ones and if so, what are the ingredients in the formula that should be avoided?

    GABA EaseTM – Calming Support 60 capsules

    GABA and L-theanine are two of our best nutrients researched for their promotion of calming effects. Passion flower, skullcap and hops have generations of traditional use in herbal medicine for their calming and nerve tonic support. This formula is an important combination of the results of modern science in natural medicine and the decades of experience in herbal medicine to promote a calming effect during occasional stress, nervous tension and hormonal irritability.*+

    Each vegetarian capsule provides: Vitamin B6 (as HCL), GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid), L-Theanine, Passion flower extract (5:1), Hops flower extract(4:1), Skullcap leaf and stem extract (5:1)

    Also, I understand that Tart Cherry and Passion Flower can be good natural anxiety treatments- would those be good choices for me?

    From Cheryl- I would establish a relationship with one of the experienced practitioners listed here. Having your neurotransmitters tested is a great first step. Many practitioners can recommend specific amino acids, or blends of aminos and nutrients to address underlying issues.

    I agree (with psychiatrist Hyla Cass) that it is very hard to treat a problem without knowing what is happening in the brain. Neurotransmitter testing gives a highly accurate picture of activity- and a road map for recovery.

    Trying to figure out the above question without continued professional guidance could absolutely make the situation MUCH WORSE! Amino acid therapy is very powerful, but potentially problematic. Guessing is simply not advised.

    I’m glad this reader has the outlet provided here; asking these questions is a great sign of strength and determination. Keep learning and you will find wholeness in the future. Then, staying well can be a fabulous do-it-yourself project!

  2. This is a very complicated issue because an SSRI, a benzodiazapine, and a bi-polar med are all being taken simulataneously. This should only be attempted under the careful supervision of a doctor very experienced in these matters, hopefully in full cooperatiion with the prescribing physician who knows this person’s history and the rationale for this protocol. These 3 drugs are difficult enough to wean from if one is only taking one of them. So this is not at all a good situation for self-experimentation.

    That being said, the benzo (Xanax) would probably be the easiest ( though not easy) to wean from first. 1 mg of Xanax is considered to be the equivalent of 20 mg of Valium. Switching to Valium makes it easier for most people to begin the weaning process because it stays in the system quite a bit longer than Xanax. Letting the Valium dissolve in the mouth would most likely allow for an initial lesser dosage to be used and then slowly reduced over time. The last 1-2 mgs tend to be the most difficult. This usually takes a number of months to accomplish.

    Second would be the SSRI. Very slowly reducing the dosage of Lexapro while simultaneously slowly raising dosages of serotonin nutritonal precursors. Great care would need to be taken here because Serotonin Syndrome is much more likely to occur with someone taking multiple psych meds than someone just combining an SSRI with serotonin nutritional precursors.

    In my opinion, the weaning off the bipolar med would only be attempted if there was any doubt about the diagnosis. A diagnosis of hypomania ( the lows without the extreme highs) would generally be more conducive to trying to wean. Extreme mood swings are very difficult to stabilize solely with nutrients.

    A program that includes an experienced PSI-type therapist, comprehensive nutrient program, nutrient dense diet, moderate exercise, and deep breathing exercises would be essential here. Belleruth Naparstek has very good guided imagery/affirmation CDs ( for depression, panic attacks, PTSD, insomnia, etc. which can be very soothing and helpful.

    Kind regards,

    Dr. Dean Raffelock

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