Bar owner sees the light, counteracts SAD

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Today marks the shortest day of the year -- the pinnacle of dread for people who feel depressed when there's less sunshine.

But when they go out for a drink or coffee in the dreary wintertime Pacific Northwest, they can now also order up a dose of something else entirely: a few rays of bright light.

Designed to mimic sunlight, light boxes are being featured at a bar in Portland and a cafe in Seattle to help those with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, an energy-sapping depression that occurs at the same time each year and affects an estimated 3 percent to 5 percent of Americans.

"I really call it atmosphere therapy in here more than anything," says Alex Carlson, the owner of Portland's Lightbar, where walls leading to the high, barrel-vault ceiling are bathed in ever-changing colors, such as a deep blue that mimics the sky just before sunrise and a red that evokes a winter sunset.

Booths have light-therapy lamps that can be dialed up to 10,000 lux, the recommended dosage for SAD sufferers, and are draped by white canopies that provide a cocoon-like coziness. DJs play ambient music as bartenders serve craft cocktails under a tree-like chandelier that includes hundreds of crystals.

A Seattle cafe owner started offering light therapy this fall after learning of Lightbar.

The condition is more common in the perpetually cloudy Pacific Northwest -- as well as in other northern locales -- because it's triggered by long winter evenings. Contrary to popular belief in Portland and Seattle, the rain has nothing to do with it.

Supporters of light therapy say SAD is underdiagnosed because doctors often take a snapshot of a patient's current mood and prescribe an antidepressant, rather than examine a years-long history to identify a seasonal trend.

Though precise sales figures are tough to come by, manufacturers of light therapy devices say they are selling more of them, and the expanding array of models on the Internet supports that assertion.

Mr. Carlson, 39, opened Lightbar following his own struggle with SAD. Though never diagnosed by a doctor, he started noticing a winter-long trend of decreased energy during his teenage years in Oregon and Germany. During two vacations to Hawaii and Egypt, the sun exposure made him better, he says.

A couple decades later, still dealing with winter blues, he tried a friend's light-therapy box and got results. He bought his own device and then got the idea to open his first bar.


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