While the change in season from summer to fall/winter is a beautiful natural transition, for many this is a time when their mood dampens due to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). However, simple self-care therapies can help. Infrared sauna and the ancient art of chromotherapy are two natural ways to help. As co-owner of Sunlighten saunas (and owner of the Sunlighten Day Spa), Connie Zack has seen first-hand how the healing benefits of light and color can support a positive mental outlook.
If hearing that light and color have a direct correlation to mood sounds intuitive, it is. As sunlight decreases and the days become darker and grayer, it makes sense that bringing in color and light therapy to your routine is an effective way to combat SAD.
Research has shown that specific colored light can help reduce the effects of SAD. To explain, I consulted with Christina Ross, Ph.D., BCPP, Biophysicist Research Fellow, Wake Forest School of Medicine’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Dr. Ross is an expert in energy medicine and the therapeutic effects of pulsed electromagnetic field, including visible light. She explained that blue violet and bright white light stimulate the pituitary gland to regulate serotonin and reduce depression and anxiety. It can also help regulate sleep to improve energy and reduce the effects of SAD.
I love that science affirms what we intuitively know — further proof that our mind and body are so interconnected. We often crave the warmth and brightness of the sunlight, so it makes perfect sense that light science would help bring sunlight and warmth both in the seasons when sunlight is in short supply. I love the hope that brings to those suffering from SAD.
Let’s dive into what colored light therapy is, and explore the definition of infrared sauna, including how it’s different from a traditional sauna.
What is colored light therapy and how does it help SAD?
Chromotherapy is a centuries-old concept, and color has been investigated as medicine since 2000 BC. Currently, chromotherapy is used as a complementary as well as an alternative treatment option worldwide.
Also known as color therapy, chromotherapy is the science of using colors to adjust body vibrations to frequencies that result in health and harmony. Light is responsible for turning on the brain and the body, entering the body through the eyes and skin. When even a single photon of light enters the eye, it lights up the entire brain. This light triggers the hypothalamus, which regulates all life-sustaining bodily functions, such as the autonomic nervous system, endocrine system, and the pituitary (the body’s master gland).
Chromotherapy works on various energy points to help balance your body via the full spectrum of visible light. Each color possesses frequencies of a specific vibration, and each vibration is related to different physical symptoms.
I recently came across Sunlighten’s infrared sauna cabins, and their portable sauna, whose chromotherapy lighting feature paints the sauna with colors from the sun’s visible light spectrum, creating an artful atmosphere with a balance-bringing effect. So, your infrared sauna experience can be enhanced to make you feel even better — simply by choosing the color that matches your wellness needs.
Maya Angelou said that “people will forget what you said, what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I often think about how color has that same effect on me. I remember how color makes me feel. I’m very intentional about choosing the color I wear, or the color I choose for a room in my home or office. I love to wear bright colors that bring a sense of joy and fun. I love peaceful, calming colors in my work environment. In my infrared sauna I lean toward choosing yellow and orange colored light during my session, which reminds me of sunshine.
How does heat and infrared sauna help SAD?
Therapeutic applications of heat may also be beneficial to mental health. Our bodies are chemistry labs and one of the constant factors at work in our bodies is the process of maintaining the right balance of body temperature. Interesting discoveries have been made about core body temperature and major depressive disorder.
I’ve been following the work of a group of researchers, including Dr. Charles Raison, MD and Ashley Mason, who published a groundbreaking 2016 study in the Journal of the America Medical Association Psychiatry showing that increased core body temperatures, up to 101, have anti-depressive like effects. For example, researchers found that one session of core body temperature raised by infrared heat can result in up to six weeks of relief from depression.
These researchers are passionate about finding alternatives to pharmaceuticals. And in fact, this research was further exploring an earlier discovery indicating that those who suffer from depression are unable to regulate body temperature during sleep. Drs. Raison and Mason theorized a connection to the thermoregulatory system and that heat can reset that system and positively impact major depressive disorder.
Here is where an infrared sauna comes in: Unlike traditional saunas that create extremely hot air, infrared sauna delivers infrared wavelengths to heat the body from within. By doing so, they increase core body temperature in ways that benefit the body and, researchers are learning, the brain and mental health as well.
These same heat researchers — including Drs Charles Raison, MD and Ashley Mason — are conducting a new study that will shed additional light on this topic. Specifically, they’re looking into how this same core-temp heating is possible outside the laboratory and through commercially available infrared saunas.
This research excites me so much because, for those suffering from SAD, it offers hope for the possibility of a safe, natural tool to help them feel better. Sitting in an infrared sauna is a comfortable, enjoyable experience that can help those struggling with depression have an easier first step to feeling better. It’s easier than mustering the energy to exercise. It’s considered an exercise mimetic, meaning it creates similar cardiovascular benefits as exercise.
3 practical tips for using light and heat for well-being
Below are three practical, personal tips outlining how I use heat and light to maintain a wellness-focused lifestyle. As the days get darker and fall and winter settle in, you’ll be surprised at how much better you can feel by incorporating these into your wellness routine.
Start my day habit stacking with heat — I’ve stacked three habits to create a great start for my mind and body. First, when I wake up in the winter, it’s not light out. So, my routine warms me up to energize my mind and body for the day. While we sleep our bodies cool down, so I wake up, turn on the lights and drink hot water with lemon first. Lemon water is so beneficial — it aids in digestion, prevents oxidation, provides vitamin C and potassium, and helps prevent kidney stones. Next, I’ll go into the sauna, which provides me with two types of light and one element of heat. Science proves that the longer you can keep your body temperature elevated when you’re awake, the better you will feel, stronger immune system will be and the more energy you will have. Then I stack some exercise, such as strength training or a walk or run.
Watch a sunrise — I love to watch the sunrise because it is beautiful, but I also love knowing research shows how sunlight is beneficial for stimulating serotonin and the circadian rhythm and reducing stress. Sunrise offers beneficial red light, which is a grounding energy that can return the mind and body to joy and happiness.
Infrared sauna sessions when I can’t get outside — As the days get longer, it gets harder for me to do the things I enjoy the summer, one of which is exercise. I love to run, but in the Midwest the weather sometimes makes that impossible. Research has shown that infrared sauna can also provide a passive cardio workout, so when I can’t get outside and exercise, I can always sit inside my home infrared sauna. Afterwards, I’ll have the same feeling that you get when you do something good for your body. And to counter the gray winter days, I’ll choose a white, yellow or orange chromotherapy color to remind me of the sun.