Seasonal Affective Disorder

Shining a Light on SAD

by Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Mood Issues & Stress

Our daylight hours in the Northern Hemisphere were already waning, and now we’ve just turned back the clocks. This transition is difficult for many of you, I know. Being without light is difficult for me, too. Light is, after all, a nutrient. I think we forget that most of the people on Earth lived without electricity as little as 125 years ago.

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. It is, however, a nudge from Mother Nature that something in your life isn’t quite right.

For millennia, we honored the natural rest and restore cycle built into the year. It was once the norm to rise with the sun and sleep when it was dark. This meant sleeping more in the winter. Even the earth rested—very little grows in winter, although the trees send nourishment to the roots, so the cycle can begin again in spring. 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. You can fight this rhythm, but it may fight back!

I’ve often said that SAD is to the annual calendar what PMS is to the monthly cycle. Like PMS, if your symptoms are severe it can mean that you aren’t honoring the needs of your body or spirit. There are real physiological changes, which take place when the days grow shorter. The sleepiness that you feel has to do with your body’s production of melatonin. Light—for some, even the nightlight in the bathroom—can cause your body to stop producing melatonin. Of course the opposite is true. The more melatonin, the sleepier you will feel. Give in! Get an extra hour of sleep when you can.

You are also exposed to less sunlight and, therefore, less vitamin D. Numerous studies show that your risk for the winter blues increase if your vitamin D levels are sub-optimal. This is true of the aches and pains, which seem to come on in the cold. I strongly recommend that you watch your vitamin D levels, especially as winter continues (unless you live in a sunny climate).

The optimal level for vitamin D is 32ng/ml – 75ng/ml. Aim for 50ng/ml or higher. Nutrient your body by taking a high-quality multi-vitamin/mineral, too. And avoid sugary snacks (and garlic mashed potatoes!). I know they’re tempting, but eating them will only make you more lethargic, because they raise your blood sugar and insulin levels significantly.

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.

One Simple Tip

An easy way to add more full spectrum light is by replacing your light bulbs with full spectrum light bulbs. I did this many years ago.

“Full spectrum” means they contain all the colors, including the blues, greens, and purples that florescent and incandescent bulbs don’t have. Have a care with how you dispose of any light bulb that has a spiral pattern as opposed to a smooth globe. 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. 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).

You can also 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.

When to Seek Help

Like anything, if your SAD symptoms are severe, please seek the help of a medical professional. Depression hurts you, but it also hurts your family, your relationships, and can even jeopardize your career. If you want to try a natural treatment for a few weeks before going to a doctor, then go for a walk every day or do another form of exercise you enjoy. As you know, exercise releases feel-good endorphins. And if you walk outdoors, skip the sunglasses! Your body only gets the benefits when the light is taken in by your retinas.

p.s. If you’ve had a good experience with full-spectrum lighting, please leave me a note here or on my Facebook page. 

Last Updated: November 1, 2012

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.


Add comment
  1. Jeannette
    8 years ago

    If I choose to use a vitamin D supplement, which one would be recommended? Is a good D3 supplement what I need?

  2. Andi
    12 years ago

    2nd attempt, miessd the question thingy!! Just popped by to wish you all yuletide blessings, good to see you are still blogging. I’m steadily recovering from an eye op, so not been on pc so much since September, thus absence! Happy to say I can see your beautiful photo’s even if I can’t read everything yet hope this writing’s ok!Hope you get to do lots of making merry:))Love lunar

  3. Kevi K
    12 years ago

    I have heard these work very well and are ‘the ones’ to get:

  4. woadfarm
    12 years ago

    They are absolutely priceless in Vermont! I start using mine in September, and any rainy day. I was really dubious before I tried one, but now I wouldn’t be without it. An unexpected benefit is that by having it on first thing every morning, and not using it past noon, I’ve had a much easier time falling asleep and staying asleep at night.

  5. Ann
    12 years ago

    I live in the NW where winters are challenging for me due the rain, clouds and little sun. I have a lightbox but also have migraines that can be triggered by certain kinds of lights (LED, fluorescent) and my lightbox hue is not the best. Are there lights that are better for someone with my headache issues?

  6. Lonnie
    12 years ago

    COSTCO has the VERILUX at $50, on sale for $40 briefly – Nov 2012- Great, Small, Portable, Sits on my desk. – Yeah

  7. Dawn
    12 years ago

    I got my light from The Litebook Company, located in Alberta, Canada.
    I’ve lived in the Canadian sub-Arctic for nine years and just bought the light last year. What a difference it’s made! That, plus vitamin D, helps me get through a very long dark period that starts just before Hallowe’en and lasts for four or five months.

  8. Woodsy Mo
    12 years ago

    Angie ~ I recommend The Sunbox Company. Their Sunbox Jr. is handy, effective, & affordable. 🙂

  9. Woodsy Mo
    12 years ago

    I live in Oregon & have used Bright Light Therapy (BLT) – October through March – for 15 years. SAD symptoms challenge me & bright light helps profoundly: lifting spirits, clearing brain fog, & minimizing anxiety. Outdoor walks, vitamin D, & simplified responsibilities help, too. Full-spectrum lighting isn’t necessary for BLT but produces less glare. (With therapy strength full-spectrum light, be sure to have a diffuser that removes UV rays in order to prevent damage to skin & eyes.)

  10. FranniJuni
    12 years ago

    I have lived on both the east and west coasts. When I moved back east from LA, I found I had developed terrible SAD and a Light Box (from Sunbox) saved me through the gray winters. Now back in LA, I still use the light box and start in August to get ready for the darkness that begins in November, using through March. It really works. I have had mine for 15 years.

  11. Stephanie
    12 years ago

    I have a Sun Square plus light box. I’ve probably had it for 4 or 5 years now, but it has been great. I also read Winter Blues for some good information on SAD. I live in the NW and always dread November thru April. Good reminders in this article. Especially walking and exercising. I am forced outside during the week as I walk my kids to school. I’ll have to force myself to extend those walks since I’m already outside…

  12. zammy101
    12 years ago

    Coscto carries them.

  13. Linda
    12 years ago

    I actually got a prescription for a light box, tells you how bad SAD effects me. Thank you for the timely information. I did not buy a box yet. 🙂

  14. andrea
    12 years ago

    I live in the north of Canada and the nights are very long. It is night by 4:30 in the afternoon. I am paying attention to this article as winter is here now and the long dark winter starts. It is always hard for me to get through. I just have to figure out what the “nudge ” is.

  15. Kathy
    12 years ago

    you can buy the light from Sunbox, just google that. good product and last forever.

  16. Sheryl
    12 years ago

    I live in Minnesota and SAD is an issue for me. Have used a lightbox for 12 years from October to March, 1/2 hr a day. Couldn’t live without it!

  17. Angie
    12 years ago

    Can you please recommend a brand or place to purchase a light box?


  18. Martine
    12 years ago

    Even tough I live in South Louisiana, I am taking notes and will act on how to cruise those darker months better. Did not know about the fluorescent lightbulbs in spirals. I broke one last week… Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *