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. The good news: Relief is easy to achieve.
Here’s what you need to know about SAD and how you can overcome the symptoms of SAD and become happier this winter.
Why We Feel SAD In Winter
Sunlight is a nutrient. Exposure to sunlight increases the feel-good chemicals in your brain and body, including serotonin. In the winter, depending on where you live, you may go through long, cloudy periods where you don’t get direct sunlight every day. This can create a physiological set-up for feeling blue or moody.
In addition, during winter when there is less sunlight, our bodies don’t suppress the release of melatonin as effectively as they do during the summer months. Melatonin is a natural substance created by your brain when it’s dark. It aids with sleep. Too much melatonin can leave you feeling sluggish and mentally foggy, and make you want to sleep more. It’s as though during winter your body doesn’t easily make the distinction between day and night.
For millennia, our ancestors honored the natural rest cycle that winter brought, including sleeping more in the winter. Today, however, we have become accustomed to living a 24/7 lifestyle. Much of our world is artifically lit up when our bodies intuitively know we should be sleeping. And, most of those lights we encounter today are still incandescent and florescent. Overexposure 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 may experience fatigue, lethargy, weight gain, carbohydrate cravings, premenstrual moodiness, irritability, excessive sadness or changes in your libido. 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.
Reverse Symptoms of SAD with Full Spectrum Light
Getting out in the sun is the best way to alleviate symptoms of SAD. Your body needs a minimum of about 30 minutes of sunlight per day. (Two hours is ideal.) However, all of the nutrients and energy you receive from 30 minutes of sun exposure are depleted after 48 hours. And, in the winter months, it can be difficult enough to get sun exposure every day.
Fortunately, full-spectrum light can help to alleviate symptons of SAD. “Full-spectrum” means that the artificial light contains all the colors of natural light, including the blues, greens, and purples. Fluorescent and incandescent bulbs don’t. Full-spectrum light is the closest thing to real sunlight. Using a full-spectrum light for about six hours per day is euivalent to getting 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 Sunshine Sciences in Colorado, and, although more costly than those from the big box hardware stores, they have lasted for years!
If you prefer not to replace all of your light bulbs, another highly effective way to combat seasonal blues is with a full-spectrum light box. 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. Be sure not to stare directly into a light box. This can cause eyestrain and headaches.
7 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. Taking nutritional supplements can contribute greatly to your health. I recommend taking a good multi-vitamin to give your body and your brain the support they need.
- Supplement with vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency is linked to depression, certain cancers such as 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.
- Get enough essential fatty acids. These are found in coldwater fish (such as salmon), nuts, seeds (such as flaxseed), and many plants. You can also take fish and flaxseed oil. Aim for 500–2,000 IUs of fish oil or flaxseed oil per day or some combination of the two. If you eat your fish, be sure to avoid the farmed varieties.
- 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. Instead, try eating a baked or roasted potato between 4Pm and bedtime. You may also want to read Potatoes, Not Prozac by Kathleen DesMaisons, Ph.D.
- Meditate. Women who meditate or practice other methods of deep relaxation are able to alleviate many seasonal blues symptoms. Relaxation decreases levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine in the blood and helps to balance your biochemistry. Practicing Metta, or loving kindness meditation, can be particularly helpful. Start by practicing Metta toward yourself by sitting quietly and mentally saying, “May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. may I be peacful and at ease.” Often feelings of anger, fear, and sadness will arise. When they do, send loving kindness toward your feelings — without sugar-coating them.
- Exercise. Some cases of depression can be helped through exercise alone. You need at least twenty minutes of aerobic-type activity three times a week to boost your mood. Try brisk walking during sunlight hours. Don’t wear sunglasses. This allows your eyes to absorb the light. Often doing this can be enough to increase endorphins.
- Don’t watch the news! The old saying “no news is good news” is actually very true. Psychologic studies show the content of TV programs can affect your mood, thinking, and behavior. Watching negative, sensationalized news events on TV, such as crime, disasters, violence, political discord, or injustices toward others can exacerbate your personal worries and, over time, cause sadness, depression, anxiety, and even PTSD.
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 for SAD
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. Listen to your body’s wisdom. And, seek the help of a professional if they are severe. Depression hurts you. It also hurts your family, your relationships, and can even jeopardize your career.
Do you experience SAD during the winter? What do you do to alleviate your symtpoms?
I have recently been diagnosed with hyperparathyroidism. I’m a healthy, active 81 years who is now concerned. As far back as I can remember my serum calcium was high, around 10. I often questioned doctors about this but they had no response. My current PCP is the first to check the parathyroid and the past year is about 65. My phosphorous is also low.
My PCP is urging me to eat high calcium foods, including dairy which I don’t usually eat. I take a Vit D supplement, and
will change my bone strength supplement to a calcium one. Everything I read recommends a parathyroidectomy.
It seems that if not taken care of, the results will be very negative.
I’m hoping that Dr. Northrup, and readers, will comment about hyperparathyroidism.
Hi Elaine – my mother is in the same situation as you – 80YO and 10+ blood calcium for at least three years and now 11.1. She has become more confused and frail recently and I’m worried and have been trying to research more on my own. However, this is a very confusing topic with many different schools of thought when researched. But I trust Dr. Northrup and hope she will weigh in.
Hi, Dr. Northrup! Do you have any opinions on using CBD oil for depression?
What a wonderful blog, Christiane! It will bring so many people out of the dark and into the Light.
As you know, I started the Light for Health – now Sunshine Sciences.com – 30 years ago when I learned that Barbara Perry, MD, at Univ of California San Diego worked with a woman in San Diego who had PMS in the winter but not in the summer. Light made her PMS go away. If women in San Diego need light, what about the rest of us?
I’m excited that a recent study showed a 22-79% increase in immune system function in 30 days with five Indoor Sunshine® 30 wt bulbs. The study measured ANC (Absolute Neutrophil Cells), the most common white blood cells. The participants were told to put the lights where they wanted and use them when they wanted. The doctor and I were both amazed!
My neighbor tells me that she no longer has to leave her kitchen to find a window to read a recipe.
Parents tell me that their autistic children are calmer and more focused.
An employee tells me that he no longer has colds in the winter.
Yes, it is very important to get light bulbs that emit a balanced true full spectrum light. Our Indoor Sunshine® lights were chosen by a national paint matching company for their paint matching displays. LEDs emit three colors that the eye has to pretend to blend. They’re not true, balanced full spectrum.
Over the years, we’ve learned that 2500 lux (a brightness measurement) of full spectrum light is very effective in a light box. We don’t need the intense 10,000 lux that was used with the bright yellow light.
I’m honored that William Tiller, retired Stanford Physics Professor, said that Indoor Sunshine® lights combine science and spirituality. It is my intention that the lights carry the vibrations of Love, Peace, Health and Cooperation.
My only suggestion is that someone may need to turn off the Indoor Sunshine® bulbs about 30 minutes before they want to go to sleep so that the body can change the serotonin to melatonin.
A few minutes ago When submitting re SAD Suddenly and enexpectedly the soothing light hearted voice of Christine began – but just when she described the wisdom of the egg – correcting damage in the sperm – silence ensued
And depression closed in
I am alone isolated. Fighting terminal cancer and have been giving in to sugar ( melatonin chocolate balls mostly – I unit of m per 5 g sugar . Yum ) but with MBC on the ramoagevin my pelvic bones and spreading to ribs – I’ve had no effective treatment since April – im freaking out.
I’ve had 27 yrs of low ATP RE severe M. E. / CFIDS ( mitochondrial myopathy) and time of stress before being Diagnosed in Feb ‘17 with stage four metastucused – Her 2 , neg invasive lobular –
Faslodex fauled in April and I couldn’t tolerate Ibrance longer than 3 mi
And get much comfort from her wise voice
thank you, what I needed to hear was: practicing Metta, I was searching for an answer and this is it…….
I am very happy to hear so many delicate information on feminine health issues. Thank you dr Northrup! Since I am from Europe, can you recomend any Light Box manufecturer for Europian market due to difference in voltage? Thanks in advance, Dejana!!
Hello, I have used a Sun Box light for about 10 years using it from October-April for 30-40 minutes daily. The last 3 years I have become depressed in May and thus had my Cymbalta increased. When I realized this was a pattern, I began using the Sun Box year round and eliminated this increased depression.
Incandescent bulbs *are* full spectrum. You probably meant ‘color temperature’.
Bright Tungsten, LED and Halogen setups are good.
It is possible to buy incandescent bulbs with a blue coating to change the color temperature to be closer to daylight (~6000K).
I purchased a light therapy lamp and anchored it to the console of my treadmill. I can get the additional light while I walk, especially in bad weather. I find it works great for me. The console has a spot to place a book, so I put my tablet there and read while I Walk AND Soak Up The Rays.
What are you thoughts on a light visor? Do you feel they work? It seems easier when busy getting ready for the day with kids vs. sitting in front of light box.
These can be very good!
How many mg would you recommend?
I take 200..is that enough or too much?
Also I take Vit D liquid. My D is 50. I learned from you that even though they are normal keep taking. I am checking out the lights and box!
Thank’s so much.
200mg is good! 100mg also good. Those with heart problems often require even more. I personally take about 100mg/ day
Living in Michigan makes it very necessary to use my Verilux S.A.D. Light. I never needed one back in San Diego. That really is paradise! I’m just now finding out that it is possible to get too much light. I remember sitting next to my light and was wide awake. That turns out to be true.
Thanks you Dr. Northrup ~
Will gladly follow those great little jewels of wisdom, are helpful for those of us who are effected by seasonal sunshine or the lack or it!!
Happy holidays from SEABROOKSC
I like what you had to say to encourage those of us who struggle with SAD. As someone who has had this since childhood, and has lived in Alaska since age 15, I wanted to share some things.
To get the full effect of light treatment with a light box, you need to be closer than 8-10 feet away. You can have it on in a room for a boost of light, but you need to be about 24″-36″ away, but not staring at it,b to get real benefit. Most suggest starting at 20-30 minutes in the morning, and adding one session in mid to late afternoon if needed. Don’t use later than 5 or 6 hours before bedtime, or it can cause insomnia.
Also, the small LED ones have been proven to be less effective and cause eye strain. A regular or mini light box is most effective, and look for ones with 10,000 lux brightness. I received an article by Norman Rosenthal many years ago from a psychiatrist. Rosenthal is the pioneer in light therapy. Using his guidelines is a good start. Hope this helps someone.
This is wonderful information! Thank you SO much!!! Christiane
I have had one cataract removed and there’s another growing in the other eye. If light boxes shouldn’t be ued by those with
cateracts and whove had cataract surgery, what’s the alternative?
A small amount of ultraviolet light is fine for cataracts. Light boxes are not contraindicated. What you need are good antioxidant vitamins!!
It’s not widely advertised that light boxes should not be used in people with cataracts & who’ve had cataract surgery.
Hi Dr. Northrup,
I enjoyed your blog, as always, and was headed out to purchase a light box when I saw the comment about light boxes and cataracts. I do have a cataract. Can I still use a light box?
For the ophthalmologist’s patient however, concerns remain about the potential for acceleration of cataract or retinal degeneration. Until further study provides the answers, it is probably prudent to counsel patients with known light-related eye disease to avoid bright-light therapy and to be examined regularly by their ophthalmologist. – See more at: http://www.reviewofophthalmology.com/content/d/features/i/1306/c/25132/#.dpuf
I actually don’t agree with this statement, light is a nutrient if it’s healthy light!!!
dear dr Northrup, i enjoyed so much your blogs and they help me a lot, i have some of your books too, thank you so much for your good advice. love Ana
Thank you very much!!
thank you for this Article. It is so important to hear that something is real. I am greatly affected by seasonal disorder/ and therefore appreciate all the tips, but i just want to stay in bed right now, as I do feel down. I wanted to mention how important it is to be around supportive women in our lives. I know this is true; but I do not have it. My mom has never been a happy person/ and this energy transferred . I have tried my best to combat it; and I do pretty well @ times, but I wish i could be around a woman like You. I feel so cheated
I am east coaster now living in the NW and it has been awful. Experience really bad SAD as it’s so gray and overcast here. Hope to move but can’t right now. Also suffer from chronic severe migraines so I am indeed living in the wrong part of the country! Due to migraines I am sure I have low levels of serotonin thus it makes so much sense why my body craves carbs. Most doctors I have talked to are of little to no help (and most health plans don’t cover visits to naturopaths who may be able to help me). Traditional physicians just want to prescribe hormones or anti-depressants. Thanks Dr. Northrup for being a voice of reason and for this advice. If only I could find a doctor like you!
Try to find an MD who is also a “Functional Medicine Practitioner”. They tend to practice medicine that is a combination of Western medicine and naturopathy. Mine treats with herbs and supplements most of the time, and seeks to understand and correct the underlying imbalances that cause our ill-health, but doesn’t hesitate to prescribe pharmaceuticals when that is the best option. It’s kind of the best of both worlds in medical treatment. Insurance pays at the same rate as a general practitioner or MD, because they are. They have just gone on to specialize in a deeper, more natural form of medicine as well. For instance, my doctor is well aware of adrenal fatigue and tests for it regularly, and treats it as well, even though to most conventional MDs it seems to be something of a mystery, and many doubt it exists.
Good luck! I also live in the Pacific Northwest, a bit North of Portland. Although I have suffered with SAD since my early adolescence, through nutritional and life-style changes I have finally come to peace with it. It can be done, and many of is live here contentedly. It makes the good weather here that much more lovely!
This is right on the mark!! And this is the kind of medicine I have always practiced!!!
Do you have any brand recommendations for light boxes? I got one the winter after I had a baby. Helped tremendously! Now 11 years later I need to get one. Thank you
I like the Light for Health brand!
Looking for full spectrum light bulbs is dicey at best, as the people at the store who sell bulbs don’t know what I want or what they have. Home Depot is ordering a daylight equivalent bulb for me. I’m not sure it is full spectrum. How can I tell? Thanks, Lyn in Nevada.
Many of the Home Depot, etc. stores sell the Reveal bulbs as full spectrum. They are called daylight bulbs. I don’t think they are actually full spectrum but are just coated to simulate daylight-like light. Look on line for Chromalux or Verilux. I think they are more likely full spectrum.
Try Indoor Sunshine available at Amazon
Is it okay to use full-spectrum lighting at night, too? I’m curious if it affects sleep if you are using it at night.
What type of light box do you recommend?Thank You.
I’m just beginning to take the subject of SAD seriously, and I will follow some of your suggestions. I’m past 70, live in an area with a long winter season and have experienced some of the above symptoms for many years, even as a teenager. Today, I’ll purchase Flax seeds and a full spectrum light bulb as a start. Thank you!!
I am forwarding this article to my son… even though it is written with women in mind. My mother suffered from this year after year and was extremely depressed before she died at age 80. My son is on the autism/ADD spectrum and is brilliant but very affected by S.A.D. He bought himself a special light and it makes him feel better. We joke about his “happy lamp” but there is truth to it. Thank you for providing this information to validate our experience.
I have suffered from SAD since adolescence. I read about ground breaking research in Boston, DC and NYC in the 1980s. I acquired my first light box in 1992 after moving to Boston and seeking help from a specialist at McLean. The psychiatrist confirmed what I knew — I suffer from more than winter blues, I have SAD. As luck would have it, one of his patients was moving to Florida and selling her light box. I went to her home in Cambridge and upon entering saw a glow in the corner. My heart swelled and I ran to it singing, “The sun! The sun!” from Six Characters in Search of an Author.” I left the home cradling it in my arms, the previous owner mourning its departure as if she were giving up her infant.
The light box raised my spirits within three days. I employed many of the other actions you describe in the blog, which were outlined in leading SAD authority Dr. Norman Rosenthal’s groundbreaking book. Now light therapy and SAD are widely acknowledged, but many mental health providers and physicians were skeptical in the 1980s and 90s.
Thank you for giving timely information about SAD and I hope other sufferers will consider light therapy. A good source of the lights is sunbox.com. In recent years, post menopause, the light box did not completely eliminate my seasonal depression, although it shortened the duration. I now take a very low dose of Lamictyl, below the “therapeutic dose” and no more seasonal ups and downs. In addition to the winter depression, I experienced hypo mania spring to late summer, a seasonal disthymia. Taking better care of myself, not always doing and overfilling my plate, but taking time to BE has made a huge difference.
I have greatly appreciated your wisdom for 15+ years Dr. Northrup and had the pleasure of meeting you and winning your book on menopause at Salem State University some years back. I treasure the signed copy. I had already read the book and passed along my first copy to share the wisdom. I am now one of your “ageless goddesses.” I am sorry I missed you, Kate and Penelope in Andover. I would have like to give you all a hug and take a selfie. ❤️ I proselytize your life affirming words about aging all of the time. I feel so much joy that you are now a grandmother and a very fit and beautiful one too — defying the sexist image of grandmas as frumpy “old ladies.”
Namaste. Excuse any typos, written on my phone with my thumb!
Beautiful beautiful message. Thank you so much!!!
Thank you so much for your so
Very wonderful attention to the changes of our weather and how it also makes it’s imprint in our life.
I also bring fall colors into my home , like my trow pillows on my sofa, and since I so lucky to be mother to 4 young children , I get to have a busy happy house all year long!!
But winter seems to be magical!!
I work hard at it!!
Thank you my Dear Dr. Northrop
You are truly a blessing in my life and everyone and everything around me
Love and Blessings,
Thank you for the article.
Can you recommend a good light box or lamp to help with SAD?
Center Environmental Therapies
Hi dr Northrup , I was reading also about team northrup products, and do you personally take those products such as vitamin d? The vitamins?
I am very interested in your business, but need to explore the products. Thank you for your time and healthful advice.
I have used the USANA products for 17 years!!i love them. Check
Out http://www.teamnorthrup.com. I also love the business model!!
Another incredibly helpful article! I’ve used a light box for over a year and I love it. It definitely helps me in the winter months 🙂
I was a night shift nurse for years, and used a full spectrum light box for at least 30 minutes a day while I was reading or doing some other activity. I found that I CRAVED sunlight, and would often drive for hours in the Southwestern sunlight, now realizing that I wanted maximum sun exposure through my windshield to replace the natural light that I was missing out on while working nights.
Now that I happily work during the day, I use my light box daily during the winter months! It significantly reduces my SAD symptoms, along with the daily exercise in full sun that I aim for. I also supplement with a multivitamin and Vitamin D. These are all wonderful interventions, and I am so glad that you posted them!
Living in Erie, Pennsylvania for thirty plus years gave me a significant case of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Truly, I was a blubbering mess. My doctor recommended a Full Spectrum Box which at that time had to be purchased from Canada! It helped – somewhat. Several of my colleagues also took advantage of its benefits – male and female and would come sit at my desk every day in the dark Fall/Winter months for twenty minutes or so. The real “cure” took place when we moved to “sunny” and gorgeous Colorado twelve years ago. Also, my doctor here tested me and found my vitamin D levels were in the “dirt” : – ) Now I take 2,000 mg a day year round.
I do all the things you suggest and I have to say, I feel “wonderful”. There are easy, comon sense solutions to this depression malady. Thanks for your guidance. Sincerely, Joy McQuillen
Great story! So glad it all worked out!!
Please provide contact to purchase full-spectrum bulbs from the company Light for Health in Colorado.
I googled it – & only found such a company in the UK
Verilux is a great brand.
I have used a HappyLight by Verilux for five years. I sit by it every morning for at least twenty minutes in the fall and winter. It has definitely helped me tolerate the winter.
I totally agree about the Verilux SAD light. Michigan is not the right place for me in the winter. Or any other time of year. lol San Diego is calling for me to come home. But, no $
That is the brand I have and it really seems to make a difference, I also take a packet of Emergen-C Immunity Plus, with water each day, the easily absorbed vitamins and minerals make a huge difference, over tablets, gel caps and even vitamin shots for me. Also Vitamin D must be combined with certain other components to be used by our bodies, the combination in the above-mentioned packets supply the necessary components.