7 Ways to Fight Seasonal Affective Disorder This Winter

by Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Featured Blog Light Mood Issues & Stress

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

Lack of ultraviolet light during the winter is the single biggest reason for seasonal depression. TWEET THIS!

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. 

Last Updated: November 17, 2015

Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Christiane Northrup, M.D., is a visionary pioneer and a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness. Recognizing the unity of body, mind, and spirit, she empowers women to trust their inner wisdom, their connection with Source, and their ability to truly flourish.

Comments

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  1. Dejana Bajic
    1 year ago

    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!!

  2. Hannah
    3 years ago

    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.

  3. Petunia
    3 years ago

    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).

  4. Belinda Tupper
    3 years ago

    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.

  5. katie
    3 years ago

    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.

    1. Christiane Northrup
      3 years ago

      These can be very good!

  6. Donna
    3 years ago

    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.

    1. Christiane Northrup
      3 years ago

      200mg is good! 100mg also good. Those with heart problems often require even more. I personally take about 100mg/ day

  7. Mark
    3 years ago

    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.

    1. Christiane Northrup
      3 years ago

      So true!

  8. Vee
    3 years ago

    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

  9. Becky
    3 years ago

    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.

    1. Christiane Northrup
      3 years ago

      This is wonderful information! Thank you SO much!!! Christiane

  10. Donna Poland
    3 years ago

    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?

    1. Christiane Northrup
      3 years ago

      A small amount of ultraviolet light is fine for cataracts. Light boxes are not contraindicated. What you need are good antioxidant vitamins!!

  11. Lianne
    3 years ago

    It’s not widely advertised that light boxes should not be used in people with cataracts & who’ve had cataract surgery.

    1. Rose Buckner
      3 years ago

      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?

      Thanks!!
      Rose

      1. Lianne
        3 years ago

        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

      2. Christiane Northrup
        3 years ago

        I actually don’t agree with this statement, light is a nutrient if it’s healthy light!!!

  12. ana
    3 years ago

    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

    1. Christiane Northrup
      3 years ago

      Thank you very much!!

  13. denise
    3 years ago

    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

  14. April
    3 years ago

    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!

    1. Ann
      3 years ago

      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!

      1. Christiane Northrup
        3 years ago

        This is right on the mark!! And this is the kind of medicine I have always practiced!!!

  15. Julie Johnson
    3 years ago

    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

    1. Christiane Northrup
      3 years ago

      I like the Light for Health brand!

  16. Lyn
    3 years ago

    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.

    1. Susan
      3 years ago

      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.

    2. Christiane Northrup
      3 years ago

      Try Indoor Sunshine available at Amazon

  17. Kristi
    3 years ago

    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.
    Thanks.

  18. Nancy
    3 years ago

    What type of light box do you recommend?Thank You.

  19. Nansi Bohne
    3 years ago

    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!!

  20. Linda
    3 years ago

    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.

  21. Deborah
    3 years ago

    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!

    1. Christiane Northrup
      3 years ago

      Beautiful beautiful message. Thank you so much!!!

  22. Teodora Sanchez
    3 years ago

    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,
    Teodora Sanchez

  23. Maryann
    3 years ago

    Thank you for the article.

    Can you recommend a good light box or lamp to help with SAD?

    Thank you.

    1. MaryBryan Smith
      3 years ago

      Center Environmental Therapies
      CET

  24. Alice muhlback
    3 years ago

    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.
    Alice

    1. Christiane Northrup
      3 years ago

      I have used the USANA products for 17 years!!i love them. Check
      Out http://www.teamnorthrup.com. I also love the business model!!

  25. Jaime
    3 years ago

    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 🙂

  26. Gretchen
    3 years ago

    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!

  27. Joy McQuillen
    3 years ago

    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

    1. Christiane Northrup
      3 years ago

      Great story! So glad it all worked out!!

  28. Linda
    3 years ago

    Please provide contact to purchase full-spectrum bulbs from the company Light for Health in Colorado.
    Thanks

    1. Susan
      3 years ago

      I googled it – & only found such a company in the UK

      http://www.lightforhealth.co.uk/

    2. Christiane Northrup
      3 years ago

      Verilux is a great brand.

  29. Paula
    3 years ago

    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.

    1. Mark Daume
      3 years ago

      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 $

    2. Anne
      3 years ago

      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.

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