Light Therapy for the Winter Blues

We don’t have to state the obvious and tell you that it’s dark in Alaska and Washington much of the winter. If the lack of sunshine has you feeling blue, you might benefit from light therapy.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is common in northern latitudes. SAD symptoms include loss of energy, inability to concentrate, desire to eat unhealthy foods, and feelings of displeasure or worthlessness. They usually begin in late fall and end in the spring.

These feelings are common in the winter, but aren’t enough to qualify for a mental health diagnosis. The actual medical condition is depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern.

When symptoms are mild, the first treatment is often light therapy. On December 21, Seattle has about 7 and a half hours of daylight and Anchorage gets about 6.

The treatment is simple: Buy a bright white light and sit in front of it for 10 to 30 minutes as soon as you can after waking up. Sit next to the light with eyes open, but don’t look directly into it. These minutes can be used to eat breakfast, sip coffee, read—or more likely—scroll mindlessly through your phone. There’s no evidence that sitting by the light longer makes you happier. It could take a couple of weeks to notice the effect.

Scientific studies show light therapy is effective in reducing depressive symptoms and has minor adverse effects.

Other tips for managing mood

Stay active: We know it’s hard to get outside when it’s dark 16 to 18 hours a day, but moving your body can help maintain mood.

Keep socializing: Connecting with fellow humans can help with mental and physical health. It boosts good feelings and even lowers risk of dementia. Even a video call with a loved one can increase feelings of connection. Other ways to get involved include volunteering, attending religious services, or taking a class.

Take vitamin D: Even on sunny days, our skin rarely produces enough vitamin D to keep the body healthy. Similarly, food sources of vitamin D aren’t popular in the American diet. Most Pacific Northwesterners could benefit from popping a supplement. It’s rare to get too much vitamin D, but ask your doctor if you have concerns.

How to buy a sun lamp

First, know that light boxes are unregulated. You could ask your doctor or mental health professional for a recommendation. The general recommendation is 10,000-lux bright light. Light therapy isn’t for everyone. If you can’t tolerate bright lights, have bipolar disorder, diabetes, or eye damage, check with your doctor before trying light therapy.

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Candace Nelson

In the mountains or water debate, Candace Nelson chooses water every time. She is a Master of Science in Nutrition student and loves taking any fitness class that makes her forget she's working out. Read more at candacenelson.net