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Fight the winter blues: Smart lighting, therapy lights combat effects of daylight saving, winter depression

Tech savvy Orro.jpg
Orro is a smart lighting system designed to respond to a person's movements and tailor lighting to its users habits. The system will learn to automatically turn lights on or off when someone enters or exits a room.

If you’re reading this column on Saturday, then gear up for an extra hour of sleep tonight. If you’re reading Sunday or later, then you just experienced the end of daylight saving time as the clocks jumped back and hour and the sunset moved up to 5 p.m.

That’s right, the end of daylight saving time is upon us, meaning clocks go back an hour early Sunday morning and the days get shorter -- and probably colder.

For some (like me, who can always sleep for 12 hours if given the chance), the extra hour of sleep on a Saturday night is a welcome occurrence. For others, the time change can be a difficult adjustment with sleep and work schedules. And for still others, the loss of daylight triggers a host of symptoms associated with winter-onset seasonal affective disorder.

Even just changing the time by an hour can disrupt circadian rhythms, which are daily cycles of hormones and other body functions that prepare a person for the expected times of sleeping, eating and activity. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, this change can lead to sleep deprivation and a reduction in performance, increasing the risk of vehicle crashes and workplace injuries. Now, the effects of “springing forward” to begin daylight saving time in March is usually felt more, experts say, with studies showing an increase in the risk of heart attacks in the week following the time change. But turning time back an hour can still mess with the body’s internal clock, leading to negative outcomes if not addressed. To combat these potential dangers, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends beginning to adjust your sleep schedule in the days prior to daylight saving time. By the time this column comes out, it’s too late to start that transition, but let it be advice for the spring.

Beyond messing with sleep and daily activity schedules, the earlier and earlier sunsets cutting into daylight hours in the evenings can affect people’s moods as well. Usually popping in late fall or early winter, symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, include depression, low energy, hypersomnia, overeating, weight gain and social withdrawal, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

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Luckily, though, we live in the age of technology when there always seems to be something on the market to help combat whatever it is we’re dealing with. The adjustment to daylight saving time -- or the end of daylight saving time in this case -- is no different, nor is dealing with SAD symptoms.

Light seems to be a key factor in dealing with these issues.

Orro, for example, is a smart lighting system that responds to a person’s presence, turning lights on and off based on sound and movement sensors. The award-winning gadget detects its user’s light patterns and adapts accordingly while also aiming to reproduce natural light patterns to help with better sleep.

For instance, Orro will learn to turn the light on or off when you enter or leave a room. It can also be set to wake you up by turning the bedroom light on gradually to resemble a sunrise.

The Orro switch plugs directly into the wall using the same wires connected to existing light switches.

One Orror switch retails for $199 on the company’s website, while the starter pack includes three switches for $540. The even bigger home pack with six Orro switches costs $949.

In terms of SAD, a common recommended treatment is light therapy with lamps or light boxes designed to give off a bright light that mimics natural light.

Similarly, light therapy is a treatment often recommended to combat symptoms of SAD. The idea behind it, the National Institute of Mental Health says, is to replace the diminished sunshine during the fall and winter months with daily exposure to bright, artificial light. Symptoms can be reduced by sitting in front of a light box or therapy lamp first thing in the morning on a daily basis in the winter for 20 minutes to an hour at a time. Typical light boxes filter out ultraviolet light and emit 10,000 lux (a measure of light intensity) of white fluorescent light about 20 times greater than ordinary indoor lighting.

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Basic light boxes and therapy lamps start around $35 on Amazon, with the prices increasing up to more than $100 depending on the light’s lifetime, size, number of settings and adjustability.

Through a grant from the Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Foundation, the Brainerd Public Library has three light therapy boxes available for public use while at the library.

For parents with young kids who might get confused about their sleep schedules during daylight saving time -- or who need assistance with sleep training in general -- specialty clocks, usually called toddler clocks or sleep training clocks, can help kids know when they can get up or if they should stay in bed. For those with kids who might wake up at the crack of dawn when mom and dad want to sleep in a little longer, some clocks can be set to glow a specific color, like bright green, at a certain time. Set the clock to glow at 6 a.m., and kids know they should stay in bed -- or at least their rooms -- until that specified time.

The LittleHippo Mella Ready to Rise Children’s clock, priced at $49.99 on Amazon, has a setting that will make it glow yellow half an hour before the actual alarm to let kids know they can play quietly in their room. When it turns green shows a smiley face, then it’s OK to come out of the bedroom.

My sister and brother-in-law have used this method with their kids, and it has worked pretty well for them. The kids know not to leave their room before the numbers on the clock light up in a bright green, even if they’re not old enough to read the numbers.

These clocks can be especially helpful right after daylight saving time when the sunrise happens an hour earlier, so kids might think it’s later than it is.

Hopefully some of these hacks will help when dealing with that pesky time change and the lack of sunlight in the coming months.

Of course, a simple therapy light might not be enough for those suffering with symptoms of SAD, so anyone experiencing those winter depression seasons should talk to their doctor about other treatments.

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But for those with more mild winter blues, maybe try a therapy lamp, explore the world of smart lighting and, if all else fails, bundle up and head outside for some time in the natural light despite the cold.

Related Topics: TECHNOLOGY
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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