As our daylight hours in the Northern Hemisphere are waning, and as we turn back the clocks to accommodate this change, it’s easy to forget that most of the people on Earth lived without electricity as little as 125 years ago! Despite being able to “change time,” I know that this transition is difficult for many of you. Being without light is difficult for me, too. Light is, after all, a nutrient.
If you are one of millions who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), don’t let anyone tell you it’s all in your head. It’s not. SAD is real. It can also be a nudge from Mother Nature that something in your life isn’t quite right.
Why We Feel SAD In Winter
Your body needs a minimum of about 30 minutes of sunlight a day. (Two hours is ideal.) However, after 48 hours, all of the nutrients and energy you receive from the sun are depleted. Depending on where you live, you may go through long, cloudy periods during the winter where you don’t get direct sunlight every day. This can make you want to sleep more. And there is a good reason for this. For one thing, circadian rhythms, those that govern the sleep and wake cycle, are different in winter than in summer. In addition, our bodies make more melatonin in the winter. Melatonin is a natural substance created by your brain when it’s dark. It aids with sleep. Of course, too much melatonin can leave you feeling sluggish and mentally foggy.
For millennia, our ancestors honored the natural rest cycle that winter brought. This meant sleeping more in the winter. (Even the earth rested—very little grows in winter, although the trees send nourishment to their roots, so the cycle can begin again in spring.) We, however, have become accustomed to living a 24/7 lifestyle. Much of our world is lit up when our bodies intuitively know we should be sleeping. And most of those lights we encounter today are still incandescent and florescent. Over exposure to these types of lights can cause symptoms that, in addition to lack of sunlight, contribute to SAD, such as eye fatigue, hyperactivity, and stress. Incandescent lights in particular put out a yellow-orange frequency. If your body becomes overdosed or sensitive to this frequency, you crave carbohydrates and more sleep. You may even experience changes to your menstrual cycle. Many people become irritable and depressed. Finally, you may experience a weakened immune system and notice that you catch more colds or even the Flu.
Words of Wisdom
How To Beat The Winter Blues With Full Spectrum Light
As daylight gets shorter, it’s not uncommon to experience fatigue, lethargy, weight gain, carbohydrate cravings, premenstrual moodiness, irritability, excessive sadness, and even changes in your libido. Luckily there are some easy things you can do to alleviate seasonal symptoms:
The best thing to do when you have long cloudy periods when the sun doesn’t come through is to use full spectrum light bulbs. A full spectrum light is the closest thing we have to real sunlight. “Full spectrum” means they contain all the colors, including the blues, greens, and purples that florescent and incandescent bulbs don’t have. Using a full spectrum light for about six hours a day is equivalent to 30 minutes of sunlight.
An easy way to add more full spectrum light to your environment is by replacing your light bulbs with full spectrum light bulbs. I did this many years ago. You can buy full spectrum light bulbs at most major hardware stores. They used to be extremely hard to find, but are now widely available. Some companies tout their products as being better quality. Since I haven’t tried them all, I can’t recommend one over another. In the past, I’ve purchased full-spectrum bulbs from the company Light for Health in Colorado, and, although more costly than those from the big box hardware stores, they have lasted for years! Dr. Joseph Mercola also sells his own line of light bulbs.
Note: The compact florescent bulbs have the spirals and are touted for their energy efficiency. Unfortunately, they also contain mercury! The good news is the mercury is only released if you break the bulb. Be careful how you dispose of any light bulb that has a spiral pattern as opposed to a smooth globe. Most big box hardware stores like Lowes and Home Depot are aware of this and offer a safe way to dispose of these bulbs. You just bring them to the store (unbroken).
Another highly effective way to combat seasonal blues is with a light box. A light box gives off full-spectrum light and extends the number of daylight hours you get. I use my light box every winter beginning in October. Light boxes are great for rainy days, too. Although they sort of look like a tanning apparatus, the idea is to enjoy the ambient light from five to ten feet away in your peripheral vision. Staring into a light box can cause eyestrain and headaches, and should be avoided.
6 More Ways To Fight Off SAD
In addition to using full spectrum light, you can keep the seasonal changes from impacting you negatively by following these simple suggestions:
- Take a pharmaceutical grade multi-vitamin/mineral every day. It’s essential to health!
- Supplement with vitamin D. This is critical in winter months. Vitamin D levels drop in the winter because the body makes it after being exposed to sunlight. The vitamin D research is so compelling when it comes to the connection between depression and vitamin D deficiency. (Vitamin D deficiency is also linked to certain cancers, like breast and colon; a weakened immune system; poor bone health; and much more.) Make sure to get 2,000- 5,000 IUs per day in the winter, especially if you tend to be vitamin D deficient (less than 32 ng/ml.). Some people require more to get their levels into the optimal range with is 40-80ng/ml.
- Get enough essential fatty acids. These are found in coldwater fish (like salmon— avoid farmed salmon.), nuts, seeds (like flaxseed), and many plants. Aim for 500–2,000 IUs of fish oil or flaxseed oil per day, or some combination of the two.
- Eliminate refined foods. Cut out sugar, flour, and other processed and white foods from your diet. Eating processed carbs increases serotonin, which you might find in short supply if you’re not getting enough natural light. Be aware that while this may give you an initial pick-me-up, the drop afterwards just isn’t worth it. Plus these foods deplete vital vitamins and minerals that help the body handle stress and build immunity. Eating a baked or roasted potato between 4Pm and bedtime is actually a very effective way to raise serotonin. Hence the book Potatoes, Not Prozac by Kathleen DesMaisons, Ph.D.
- Practice stress reduction or energy medicine. Women who practice meditation or other methods of deep relaxation are able to alleviate many of their PMS and seasonal blues symptoms. Relaxation of all kinds decreases the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine levels in the blood and helps to balance your biochemistry.
- Get at least twenty minutes of aerobic-type activity three times a week. Brisk walking during sunlight hours — especially without sunglasses so your eyes absorb the light — can boost endorphins. It’s estimated that half of all depression cases can be helped through exercise alone. (Read Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, Chapter 18 for more information.)
Adopt as many of my suggestions as you feel comfortable with. Not only will they chase away the winter blues, they’ll help you stay healthy at the cellular level, too.
When to Seek Help
Being a 24/7 culture is not always a good thing. Listen to you body’s wisdom. We all need to “go into darkness” at times to rejuvenate and to take stock of our lives. This is particularly true after we’ve created something significant in the outer world. I experienced this after the launch of each of my books—and did my best to honor it.
However, if your symptoms are excessive, don’t ignore them. Seek the help of a professional if they are severe. Depression hurts you, but it also hurts your family, your relationships, and can even jeopardize your career.
If you’ve had a good experience with full-spectrum lighting or other techniques, please leave me a note here or on my Facebook page.