Lightening Up for SAD

winter sun bare tree February is the time of year when people start complaining about the winter blues. If you spend too much time indoors you could be singing the blues along with them.

Two hundred years ago the working hours of the day were between sunrise and sunset. 75% of the population worked outdoors. Now less than 10% of the population work in natural outdoor light.

There is no doubt that weather affects people’s moods and that weather triggered mood shifts do not affect most people’s ability to cope with daily life. However, some people are vulnerable to a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern. For us the shortening days of late autumn are the beginning of a type of clinical depression called “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” or SAD that can last until spring.

SAD is less common in countries near to the equator where the hours of sunlight are more constant and bright throughout the year. SAD usually first begins between the ages of 20 to 30, but it can develop at any age. It affects four times as many women as men.

Unsurprisingly,  studies suggest that SAD is more common in northern countries, where the winter day is shorter. Deprivation from natural sources of light is also of particular concern for shift workers and urban dwellers who may experience reduced levels of exposure to daylight in their work environments. Symptoms of SAD include decreased energy, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability,  avoidance of social situations, and feelings of anxiety and despair.  — Canadian Mental Health Association

Direct Sun Exposure Required

Sunlight has a direct effect on the brain’s ability to produce serotonin, one of the main chemicals involved in the regulation and stability of moods.   Melatonin is an equally important hormone as the body converts serotonin to melatonin.  This hormone regulates the sleep-wake cycle.  Production of melatonin is inhibited by light and stimulated by darkness.

Similarly , Vitamin D production is also increased by direct sun exposure. An  important prohormone, Vitamin D3, one of the two major forms it takes in the body, is produced in skin exposed to sunlight, specifically ultraviolet B radiation. Vitamin D serves its major purposes by serving a vital role in organ maintenance.

Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Low intake of B vitamins is strongly associated with depression. Considerable research points to the mood-lifting benefits of three B vitamins: B6, B12, and folic acid. Vitamin B6 is essential for the body’s production of serotonin, which most anti depressant drugs are designed to elevate. Several clinical trials have pitted St. John’s wort against leading anti-depressant medications and St. John’s wort either matched or exceeded the drug in benefits.

Experts the world over agree that bright light therapy is still the best form of treatment for SAD.  Researchers at medical centers and clinics in the U.S. and Canada and abroad have had much success with light therapy in patients with clear histories of SAD for years. Marked improvement is usually observed within a week, if not sooner, and symptoms usually return in about the same amount of time when the lights are withdrawn.

Light Therapy – Therapeutic Levels

Some very light-sensitive people, living and working in dim environments, may feel improvement with increased exposure to normal room light.  But studies show most sufferers of SAD require exposure to light levels much higher than ordinary indoor lamps and ceiling fixtures provide. Such therapeutic levels are five to twenty times higher (as measured in lux or foot-candles by a light meter) than typical indoor illumination in the home or office. The strongest therapeutic effect requires exposure to artificial bright light in early morning when it is still quite dark outdoors during long winter nights.  (There’s  a great deal of information online about these full spectrum lightboxes.)

Treatment Program for SAD

Unlike the areas in the mountains and on the prairies where it snows in winter months, we have very few winter days where there is plenty of sunshine on the west coast. I noticed I had a pattern of winter depression. I was sure I had more than “the winter blues” so I sought medical help, tested as a light sensitive person, and was disagnosed with SAD over 10 years ago. That’s when my doctor suggested trying the  full spectrum light box, which is the most common form of light therapy for seasonal affective disorder.

winter light through treesMy full spectrum light box  provides 10,000 Lux from 14″ to 20″ distance from the head of the lamp, which is pointed toward my face and makes an excellent work light on my computer desk.
I start with 30 minutes daily exposure each morning,  and increase that gradually to 1 hour daily until the rains are gone and the spring comes shining through.

Dietary Guidelines:

  1. Vitamin D in foods such as oily fish, eggs, butter, milk and sprouted seeds as well as a good Vitamin D supplement, in the D3 form, is advised for those living in low sunlight areas.
  2. Tryptophan is a building block of serotonin and some food proteins are naturally high in tryptophans, including lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs,  dairy products,  soy and legumes.
  3. A variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts.
  4. Fruit and vegetables eaten raw whenever possible as cooking destroys folic acid.
Given that SAD’s symptoms closely mirror those of clinical depression, a correct diagnosis of SAD is a very important step towards treatment. Otherwise a false diagnosis of depression could lead to unnecessary prescriptions for pharmaceutical medications.  Diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder


Do you or any of your family members experience the winter blues?

Do you suffer from  Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD?