I tried light therapy to beat the winter blues

Light therapy can help suppress the increase in melatonin that comes with darker days. One woman gave it a try to combat her winter blues.
Image: light therapy
Light therapy can help with Seasonal Affective Disorder, a depression during the winter months when there is much less sunlight during the day.B. Boissonnet / Getty Images
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By Ronnie Koenig

I’m not a big fan of winter. I dislike the feeling of being shriveled up into a cold little ball, my skin feeling like sandpaper and especially the lack of sunlight that accompanies the season. I do my best to adopt a hygge attitude, though, because hating an entire season is too negative. Last winter I found the coziest blanket, the most decadent hot chocolate and tried to come up with lots of fun activities to keep active and engaged. And, of course, I kept up with my exercise routine, which always helps to put me in a good mood.

But if you’re like me and can’t deal with the fact that the sun basically sets in the middle of the afternoon here in the Northeast, you know that the lack of sunlight can really take its toll. By mid-fall I found myself pouring over pictures from summer, longing for the days when 4:30 p.m. was the time we’d hit the local pool for an afternoon swim after the kids got home from camp, not hole up for the day.

What is light therapy?

“For patients that have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a depression during the winter months which is more common in northern areas where there is much less sunlight during the day, I recommend light therapy,” Jerald H. Simmons, MD, neurologist and sleep disorders specialist director at Comprehensive Sleep Medicine Associates told me.

Simmons said that not all patients will respond to light therapy the same way — and that is because people have varying sensitivity to melatonin. “Light therapy works by inhibiting melatonin secretion from the pineal gland. This reduction of melatonin release by the pineal gland normally occurs during the day, when exposed to bright light. Conversely, when you’re in darkness at night, the inhibition goes away and the pineal gland will increase melatonin secretion,” says Simmons. “Melatonin makes the brain more prone to fall asleep by reducing wakefulness. Some people are more sensitive to melatonin and higher amounts will cause depression symptoms. Those individuals will feel more of the ‘winter blues’ and bright light therapy will reduce the melatonin levels and improve their symptoms.”

I had heard of light therapy before, but assumed it was just for people with a serious case of Seasonal Affective Disorder. But Norman Rosenthal, MD, the researcher and psychiatrist who led the team that first described Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and pioneered light therapy to treat it, told me that even those without depression or a mood disorder can benefit from it. (Rosenthal is also the author of “Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Season Affective Disorder”.)

Our research found that in the Northeast one in five could benefit from supplementary light.

Norman Rosenthal, MD

“It’s an extremely useful tool to help with the lack of energy, lack of creativity and lack of productivity that for many people, comes in the winter months,” he said. “The amount of light is very important. People vary in their sensitivity. Some people will be fine through the winter others may not. Our research found that in the Northeast one in five could benefit from supplementary light.”

SAD is a serious depression that lasts more than two weeks. Dr. Rosenthal confirmed that it can literally begin when the days start to get short and end when you get your first al fresco dinner of the spring. He also told me that women are more likely to be affected than men. (Apparently it has to do with female sex hormones.)

I knew that what I had was more a case of the winter blues, meaning that I can still function and enjoy life, but find this whole living-without-sunlight thing to be kind of a bummer. I decided to get a light therapy box to see if it would make a difference in my energy levels and attitude.

I tried it: Light therapy

When the Verilux HappyLight Touch arrived at my house my husband asked when I had gotten an iPad. This sleek and lightweight light really does look like an Apple device — it’s portable and can be mounted to the wall or used on a small stand. It claimed to “bring the daylight indoors by emitting a bright white light that mimics sunlight.” Looking out the window and seeing yet another blah, gray day that sounded good to me! The light is UV-free which means you can’t get a sunburn from it and has 10,000 units of intensity, the recommended amount to make a difference in your energy levels and mood. I decided to set it up right next to me while I worked, which would make it easy for me to get the recommended 20 minutes to one hour a day of exposure.

The first thing I noticed when switching it on was that this light is really bright! It didn’t trick me into feeling like it was a summer day, but it sure brightened up the room and my work area. When I switched it off was surprised at just how dark the room looked without it.

I used the light consistently for a few days and enjoyed the fact that I was working in a brighter room. The additional light source was a welcome spark of brightness as the days were getting shorter and the nasty; cold rainy weather was making it difficult to spend time outdoors.

When the weekend came, I forgot to spend time next to my light, and worried that I had ruined my regimen. Rosenthal told me not to worry, that as long as I was getting in tune with the amount of light that I needed, that was more important than following a protocol for an exact amount of daily time tied to the light box.

“You can use it as your discretion,” he said. “I encourage people to recognize how much light they need in the same way you learn to recognize how much exercise or sleep you need. You’re developing an awareness of what is making you feel good.”

I remembered that over the weekend, there had been more plentiful sunshine. Deciding to seize the opportunity, I had thrown on my sneakers, bundled up and went outside for a run. The feeling of actual sunshine on my body (even though it was covered up in layers) felt fantastic!

The verdict: Light therapy worked to increase my awareness

Using the HappyLight put me more in tune with the cycle of my day. When it was gray outside and I had work to do, it was easy to switch the light on and find some additional brightness. But it also made me more aware of fact that I could get out into whatever daylight there was and steal some sunshine whenever it was available. (Rosenthal reminded me that even on a cloudy day, you’re still getting sunlight.) I started to make sure I got outside in the mornings, no matter what, even if it was just for errands. I also got greedy with whatever sunshine I could find — if there was a sunbeam to be had, I was taking a run in it, curling up in it or just simply basking in it any chance I got.

The winter months can be a slippery slope if you’re not careful (and I’m not just talking about that awful gray slush covering the sidewalks). First you start to cancel plans because it’s too cold outside, then your exercise routine goes out the window. Your body craves comfort foods so you give in to more carbs and sweets and before you know it you’ve become a sedentary, house-bound couch potato with an insatiable appetite for Bark Thins and "Full House" re-runs (not that this has happened to me, of course, just theoretically speaking).

I asked Rosenthal if we should just all pack up and move to sunny California, and he told me that moving to a sunnier climate is not necessarily a good solution to the winter blues for most people.

“There are problems in California too,” he said, “In Los Angeles, people are hunting for shade, there’s the heat, the dryness, the lack of water. Wherever you go you will find a problem. Some people with really serious SAD may be better off moving. The good news is there are simple and effective things we can do to help with the lack of sunlight and feel good year-round.”

If you’re experiencing more serious signs of depression like feeling tired all the time and losing interest in activities you once loved, make sure you reach out for help from a professional. But for a case of the winter blues, or as part of therapy for SAD prescribed by a doctor, light therapy may be helpful.

And while a HappyLight isn’t going to instantly make you love winter, I found that when used in conjunction with a healthy routine of proper nutrition, exercise, socializing with friends and family and simply getting outside, it helped to make the gray days more tolerable.

And don’t forget the cozy blanket and hot chocolate. Those help, too.

Next: Is your urge to hibernate really seasonal depression? Here’s how to tell.

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