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Coffee and light sees Stockholmers through dark winter

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09:19 CET+01:00
It's pitch black outside in wintry Stockholm but indoors at the all-white Light Cafe, guests recline comfortably in white armchairs as they soak up a dose of artificial sunlight to fight off the winter blues.

In the depths of winter, daylight in the Swedish capital lasts from 9:30 am until 2:30 pm. The average office worker often goes to work in the dark and returns home in the dark, offering little opportunity for the body to get its much-needed fill of sunlight.

The day's first customers at the Iglo Ljuscafe, or Igloo Light Cafe, arrive early to undergo an hour of light therapy before work. They turn up before 7:00 am, enjoying their breakfast while sitting under special lights for one hour, the amount of time recommended by doctors.

"I opened the Ljuscafe three years ago after a deep depression because of the lack of light 10 years ago during my studies," 34-year-old Martin Sylwan tells AFP.

He said the idea of going to a hospital for treatment did not appeal to him.

"It wasn't very fun to go to the hospital, people are not very smiley. You feel very sick... And I had the idea of a cafe where you can come, take in the light and (have a) good time, read the newspaper, a kind of social place where people can talk together," he says.

From the outside, the Ljuscafe looks like any other coffee shop but indoors the difference is striking.

The whiteness is intense, but not blinding. The neon lights hanging from the ceiling create an aura of warmth and calm. Customers, who book a one-hour session in advance, are provided with long white robes at the door.

After placing their shoes in a locker they walk to the breakfast table in their socks, stocking up on healthy foods such as freshly squeezed exotic juices, organic cereals, yoghurts and fruits before taking a seat in one of the 10 comfy white chairs.

The hexagon shape of the room enables the light to reflect off the walls in all directions, and thick white curtains block out any outdoor light to maximize the effect of the white light.

The Ljuscafe fills up as the days get shorter toward the winter solstice, with some 50 people turning up each day.

Among them is Anki Lewer, a 29-year-old Stockholmer who works for an international aid organisation.

"In winter, everything seems boring, I have no energy, no motivation for anything and I'm so tired. I came here last year, I felt good, so why not this year if it's good for me," she says.

Jenny Olofsson, 30, and Malin Andersson, 28, are visiting the cafe for the first time, paying the 160 kronor (17 euros, 23 dollars) for an hour's therapy and breakfast. They're already sold on the idea.

"You know, the winter in Sweden is very hard, it can be awful with darkness all day long. Sometimes you don't have any sun between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm and we can get depressed," Olofsson says.

The Ljuscafe's concept is catching on and other similar cafes are now opening up across the country. It has also received the stamp of approval from doctors.

"It's a serious and professional light treatment alternative," explains Maj-Liz Persson, a psychiatrist at Stockholm's Karolinska Hospital.

Doctor Arne Lowden, of the national institute for psychosocial medicine, agrees.

"The cafe has very good ergonomics (and) it was studied for lux", a unit for measuring illumination, he says.

Some 0.5 to three percent of the world population suffers from winter depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), often directly related to the lack of light in winter.

"The prevalence of SAD is more common in Sweden. It's about eight percent according to a report on winter depression conducted last year" in central Sweden, Persson said.

In summer, the body receives about 100,000 lux but only 1,500 in winter.

The body needs 2,500 lux in order to secrete the hormone melatonin, which helps the body regulate its sleep and waking cycles in reaction to darkness.

In winter, Swedes in the north of the country "can have zero hours of sun per day," Lowden says.

"A very good (sunny) day is about 2,000 lux. When it's a cloudy day you have more light inside (the cafe) than outside. On a cloudy day you have only 300 lux," compared to 3,000 lux inside the Ljuscafe.

The Ljuscafe "is a very good solution for many people," Lowden says.

However, he notes that people react differently to the lack of light and for many people, an afternoon walk or a few hours of skiing on the weekend -- popular pastimes for the outdoor-loving Swedes -- are enough.

"There are individual differences. It depends on the time you spend outside," he says.

For light therapy to be most effective, Lowden recommends that people undergo one hour of light therapy five days a week for two weeks. Then, once a week or as the need arises.

Delphine Touitou - AFP

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