December 21, 2012, was rumored to be the last day of the world as we knew it. While there was no apocalypse, the date was also the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year. Or, for those of us who suffer from the winter blues, the longest night of the year. Long before it got cold out, I noted my own doomsday on the calendar: the last day of daylight saving time. Each year I mark it as a countdown to the early sunsets and inevitable shift in my well-being.
Good-bye daylight saving time. Hello seasonal affective disorder.
I’m a seasoned veteran in the fight against depression. With the help of holistic medical professionals, I’ve discovered physiological causes that allow me to treat depression successfully with natural approaches.
But still, winter seems to get me every time.
Several years went by before I made the connection between these annual patterns of descent in mood and energy. After one tenaciously depressing winter, I started researching seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and learned that serotonin levels dip when it gets dark out. In winter months when the days are darker longer, particularly in northern latitudes, that serotonin dip is more persistent and pronounced.
Seasonal affective disorder is a variety of clinical depression, while the winter blues is a less severe form of the condition that still affects productivity, energy, cheerfulness and creativity. An estimated 14 million Americans suffer from SAD, while millions more experience the milder winter blues, according to Normal Rosenthal, M.D., who pioneered the use of light therapy.
Let in the light
Last fall, as doomsday approached, I bought a bright-light therapy lamp, sometimes called a light box, to supplement the dearth of sunlight.
Bright-light therapy has shown to be successful in resetting circadian rhythms and lifting serotonin levels. Effective, high-quality lamps should provide 10,000 lux and run about $250-500. Early morning sessions between 6 and 8 a.m. work best, and usual treatment times are 30 minutes.
It took me a while to get around to using my new lamp at the proper time, because by the time the package arrived, I was already on the descent and sleeping until nearly noon. Eventually the frustration of feeling so lethargic—moving slowly with little energy or motivation or ability to focus—helped motivate me to get up and use the light box at its suggested time.
Sitting under the lamp with a fresh cup of coffee has quickly become my favorite part of the day. After consistent bright-light therapy, here’s what I’ve noticed:
- I now look forward to starting the day. The bright light is enjoyable and uplifting. (Apparently it’s normal to get queasy during initial uses. I started slowly with 10- to 15-minute sessions.)
- After a few days of conditioning, I wake up automatically in the mornings with more alertness. No more snoozing the alarm repeatedly.
- I’m more energized to fill my day with work, exercise and socializing.
- My mood is more stable, even at night, and evening cravings for sweets have lessened in intensity.
- I get sleepy around the same time at night and fall asleep faster.
Even with my new indoor beacon, I’m still not a huge fan of winter. But just as inevitably as winter comes, spring is not far behind.
Beat back the winter blues
In case you can’t escape to the tropics, here are a few ways to ward off the seasonal blues:
- Wake up before or at dawn to get the most sunlight of the day.
- Spend time outside if weather permits.
- Sit in front of a 10,000-lux light therapy lamp for 30 minutes each morning while you read, eat breakfast, check email, etc.
- Exercise regularly and eat healthfully.
- Go to bed earlier so you’re more rested.
- Turn off electronics an hour or so before bed to help you fall asleep more quickly.
- Give yourself a break by not taking on unnecessary work or projects.
- Socialize with friends and family to avoid isolation.