Tip #2 in the Winter Wellness Series
If you think seasonal affective disorder is all in someone’s head, I’m here to tell you, yes, it is—MINE, as well as those of many people. SAD DOES exist, quite literally, in the brain. According to PsychologyToday.com, “Seasonal affective disorder is estimated to affect 10 million Americans. Another 10 percent to 20 percent may have mild SAD. SAD is four times more common in women than in men. The age of onset is estimated to be between the age of 18 and 30.” And no surprise, it’s also more common in gloomier climates. So, if you’re feeling it, you would not be alone. In fact, if you suspect you may be dealing with SAD, you should consult with your physician or specialist to discuss treatment.
In general, what happens when someone is "SAD?" The blues, carb cravings, sluggishness, weight gain & oversleep of SAD likely result from a lack of bright light hitting the eye. That light, so abundant in summer & rare in winter, stimulates the brain to produce seratonin, which improves mood, and melatonin, which helps to regulate sleep and also mood. When light levels drop, so can levels of crucial brain chemicals, along with quality of life. (By the way, some people suffer from SAD in spring/summer, which has converse symptoms such as anxiety/agitation, insomnia, and weight loss. It’s worth investigating if you suspect you’re affected.)
Amazingly, an often effective fix in winter turns out to be very non-invasive: exposure to very bright light for about 30 minutes a day, preferably first thing, as if one is experiencing a sunrise. While you can try to do this outdoors (any time of day), it does need to be sunny, a rarity during western PA winters. And you can’t just switch on a bunch of lights indoors & expect symptoms to lift. While quite a bit more expensive than regular lights, specially designed lights are well worth the investment. Often called “light boxes,” the older versions like mine look like industrial, metal briefcases that blast out enough rays to illuminate the backyard! (I often ask my neighbor if she can see the “Griswold” light, emanating from my kitchen at 6am.) The newer ones are quite a bit sleeker.
Many different companies now produce lights to address SAD. You’ll even spot them in warehouse stores. Be aware, though, that these devices need to meet certain specs to impact SAD. I personally rely on a pioneer in the field, AlaskaNorthernLights.com. (I receive no payment for this endorsement, by the way!) As the the site explains, your light of choice will need to emit at least 10,000 lux (a measure of lumens per square meter) to be effective. You’ll also need to establish a routine, following important tips on usage. Alaska Northern lights offers excellent guidance.
When it comes to SAD, I’ll admit I've come a LONG way. Fifteen years ago, as research was (unbeknownst to me) just hitting the scene, I didn’t think SAD was “really a thing.” In winter, I used to insist to my alarmed hubby, “I’m fiiiine. I don’t think I have THAT. Is it even real??” Turned out, yes, it was, and yes, I did! In fact, my spouse was so concerned about my winter wellbeing and about our impending move back to the notoriously gray Pittsburgh climate, he made SAD the focus of a research paper for a psych class he was taking. Then he handed it to me. An hour later, I was begging for a light box for my (November) birthday.
I’ve used that light EVERY winter ever since, from Halloween til the start of April. I’ve also shared info with many pals & urged them to chat with their docs. In fact, a couple of friends stopped using tanning beds (not realizing why they craved the brightness so much) and turned to light boxes, which emit NO dangerous UV rays. Perhaps most promising, when I shared my experience with my excellent physician, he began recommending such lights to patients he suspected were suffering from SAD, and still does so more than a decade later.
Do I still remain vigilant about my depressive tendencies? YES. My mental health regimen overlaps with the physical health habits I constantly work at maintaining—exercise, balanced eating, adequate sleep. It also includes daily meditation and journaling. But I can accurately call light treatment a consistent saving grace during these darkest, coldest days of the year.
Suspect you struggle with SAD? If you’re thinking about proactively addressing SAD, you don't need a prescription to purchase a special light, but you should discuss your symptoms with your doctor. He/she will have insights and may also determine that you need a more in-depth treatment for depression. I have no qualms about telling you that depression is NOT something to ignore.
So, literally, let there be light! Just make it super bright & consult with your specialist first. Here's hoping it also serves to lighten your heart.
PS: To check out the other posts in this Winter Wellness series, just click back to our home page.