NU Wellness Suite offers white light therapy, aims to alleviate seasonal depression symptoms


Photo courtesy of Hilary De Vries

Northwestern’s Wellness Suite offers white light therapy that can relieve symptoms of SAD.

Lily Ogburn, Reporter

As the coldest winter months approach, Northwestern’s Wellness Suite is working to combat students’ seasonal affective disorder and low energy levels through white light therapy. 

According to NU Recreation, light therapy is a safe treatment for symptoms of depression, sleep disorders, SAD and mood disorders. Using white light boxes, the therapy involves exposure to full-spectrum light that mimics sunlight. Research has shown that white light therapy can reduce serotonin transporter binding in the brain, leaving more serotonin available to boost mood levels.

The Wellness Suite has offered white light therapy for over seven years, free of cost for students, faculty, staff, members and massage clients of Henry Crown Sports Pavilion.

Promoting mental health and wellness has been a goal of the suite for the past ten years, Associate Director of Fitness and Wellness Nancy Tierney said.

“Well-being is the basis for everything that we do,” Tierney said. “White light treatment was just such a natural fit —  it complemented what we were doing with our other programming.”

Appointments range from 15 to 60 minutes, and users can sit or work near a light box and indirectly absorb the light. The treatment is most effective in the morning, said Assistant Director of Fitness and Wellness Hilary De Vries.

According to the Wellness Suite, light therapy is especially effective in the fall, winter, and spring. The treatment helps realign the brain’s circadian rhythm, or its 24-hour cycle. This can improve SAD, which is often worsened by the decreased hours of daylight in the winter.

“When we get into these dark months of the year where we’re losing a lot of daylight, (light therapy) can help to improve energy levels by giving us more of that light activity during our day,” said De Vries.

De Vries, who underwent the therapy, said she felt “more awake” compared to how she usually felt prior to using the treatment.

Medill sophomore Alexia Kadota-Browner has also used the service several times. 

“I started to really feel the effects of the gloomy weather and how my mood is pretty directly correlated to how much sunlight there is,” she said. 

After seeing a poster for the therapy, Kadota-Browner decided to explore the treatment. 

Kadota-Browner said the therapy is one part of her wellness routine now and has been an overall positive experience. She noted that the Wellness Suite offers a comfortable atmosphere with bean bag chairs and refreshments, promoting a more holistic wellness experience.

White light therapy can be beneficial to anyone, Tierney said, even students, faculty and staff who are not experiencing SAD.

Along with improving energy levels, sleep cycles and mood, the therapy has also been shown to correct jet lag and alleviate symptoms of depressive disorders.

Kadota-Browner said white light therapy has become an important resource for her at NU. 

“My transition to college was a little bit rough, so finding resources that would help me feel better as an individual and get my day started on the right track was super important,” Kadota-Browner said.” I’m really happy that I found white light therapy to be one of those things.”

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Twitter: @LilyOgburn

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