Highschool. The alarm would go off at 5:45, but the stars were still out. It was so hard to wake up in the wintertime. I can clearly remember that beeping from my old alarm clock with its blocky red LCD numbers going off. I would be a zombie for the first few hours, often the whole day, during the winter months.
When seasons changed and the summer sun shone, I had no issues. But those highschool winter mornings were just brutal.
It got worse when I went to college.
However, during my time at university, I discovered that I had many symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, commonly shortened to SAD. That was me, during the winter! My energy was low, and my mood blue.
I learned that a few relatively minor lifestyle changes could make a big difference in my outlook during the cold months, and figured out how to implement them to improve my life.
Tackling the Winter Blahs
Once I discovered Seasonal Affective Disorder, I began to research the varied treatments for it. Many of these treatments are simple lifestyle changes, and they are effective. By far the most important change I made was to get outside and soak up as much sun as much as possible during the winter.
My natural tendency in winter is to hide inside with some coffee and a book. Bonus points if there is a fire to sit near. I was never much for winter sports, and it always seems like I’m colder than everyone else I’m around. I don’t like being outside in the cold.
However, I learned that in the winter I need regular doses of raw, unpasteurized sunlight, with no sunscreen. Any day the weather cooperates I try to get outside during the cold months. Many of us with office jobs tend not to get much sun during winter. We get to work just as the sun is coming up, and by the time we leave, it’s dark.
I learned to prioritize going outside at lunch, and maybe for a walk during a break, to get sun on exposed skin. Going for a walk in the cold without a scarf, hat, etc., is hard. But the sun exposure is so worth it.
Many of us know that Vitamin D levels are associated with sun exposure and seasonal depression. But I found that it’s not only Vitamin D that we should focus on. Other biomarkers like Nitrous Oxide levels that move in parallel with Vitamin D levels, and are improved with sun exposure.
Sunscreen use can block the body’s absorption of UVB radiation (which are associated with Vitamin D and NO), so it’s important to skip the sunscreen in the winter while the UV Index is below 3. However, reflective environments like ski slopes can increase the UV Index. Put some sunscreen on if you’re going to be skiing or ice skating all afternoon.
Real sun exposure is good in winter, but don’t be foolish and get too much sun exposure.
Indoor Lighting and Sunlight
Of course, it’s also possible to get sun exposure while inside, by sitting in the sun near the windows. However many modern windows come with UV blockers and tints in the glass, which can impact UV intake.
SAD Lamps and Lightboxes
Artificial light can be a big help in alleviating SAD symptoms as well. The 10,000 lux lightbox format has become quite popular for SAD symptoms. I have used and looked at some of these units. See my Verilux Happy Light Reviews here.
Not long ago, these lightboxes were pretty ugly looking, and looked more like medical devices or the types of lights that might be found in a photography study. But as LED lighting took over, and the lights themselves became smaller, these lightboxes now look more like iPads or tablets than box lights.
They still provide 10,000 lux of light, which is the typical target dose of light SAD-sufferers target. And they work pretty well. But there are a few problems with the lightbox format.
Distance and Lux Measurements
Most lightboxes measure their light output from a distance of 12″-18″ from the source. In order to absorb 10,000 lux of light in 30 minutes, you’ll need to stay within 12-18″ from your lightbox.
That’s really close.
Most people don’t sit that close to their lights, and getting the light positioned correctly is complicated. If you sit too far away, you need to stay there for longer to get your 10,000 lux dose.
These lightboxes are made to simulate the light of the sun. During the day, the sun is always above our heads, and the light enters our eyes from above. In order to copy this circumstance, the lightbox should be positioned above the head at an angle so that the light travels down to the eyes.
This positioning is a pain when working with a tabletop/tablet-style lightbox. You’ll need to get a stand or otherwise improvise a way to raise the lightbox above your head during the exposure time.
Location of the Lightbox
Looking directly at the 10,000 lux lightbox can be a pain. Most recommend keeping the box off to the side of your vision, at around 10 or 2 o’clock. This way, the box is not in the center of your vision while you’re getting exposure.
The Challenges of Lightboxes
All of these circumstances make it pretty awkward to use a lightbox early in the morning. You need to get 30 minutes of exposure early in the morning, you need to stay in the same place for that time, and you need to be in a situation where the light is above your head, and close to you.
But who sits in the same spot for 30 minutes every morning?
In order to get that timed exposure, I would have to try to wake up even earlier in the morning, which would just make things worse!
Enter SAD Light Glasses
Manufacturers have been working on improvements in the lightbox model, and one of the most popular new solutions are light therapy glasses. They are quite different than lightboxes, but work on a similar principle.
Light therapy glasses use light in the area of 500nm wavelength, which translates to a blue/green light. This wavelength is known to be good for treating SAD symptoms.
Light therapy glasses, which I reviewed here don’t have any glass in them. They consist of a frame that sits on your head like regular glasses, and shine blue/green light into your eyes.
The light is not very bright, but a standard 30-minute dose will provide the equivalent of 10,000 lux full-spectrum light.
What is so nice about these glasses and light therapy visors is that you can follow your regular morning routine while wearing the glasses. You’re not stuck sitting in one spot for 30 minutes, waiting for your dose to complete.
Who sits in the same place for 30 minutes at a time in the morning before 8am?
Exercise and SAD Symptoms
Another significant aspect of seasonal depression is exercise. I have never been a big fan of winter sports like skiing and snowshoeing. I greatly prefer activities that work better during the warm season like swimming, cycling, and running. It’s all too easy to skip exercise during the winter, regardless of whether the exercise is indoor or outdoors.
Outdoor exercise in winter is best for SAD sufferers because that precious sun exposure is pretty easy to get while exercising outdoors. But if you can’t or don’t want to exercise outdoors during the winter, a trip to the gym or yoga studio will certainly help alleviate SAD symptoms as well.
However, If I can get outside, especially in nature, my mood skyrockets. There’s just something about walks and runs in a forest or natural spot. These experiences improve the mood, regardless of the temperature. Sometimes it’s hard to do this during the workweek, but weekends offer a chance to explore the winter wonderland.
Healthy Eating and Seasonal Depression
We all know that it’s easy to overconsume during the winter months. The string of holidays, holiday parties, and sweets that hit over the winter can be overwhelming. And it’s not like there are tons of fresh vegetables in season, either!
It’s hard to do, but making a conscious effort to keep the food consumption (especially sugar!) under control makes a big difference in seasonal depression.
Supplements and Seasonal Depression
Many of us have heard of taking vitamin D supplements in place of sun exposure. Some argue that this is much healthier, as there is no risk of Melanoma from vitamin D supplements, while there is some risk from sunlight exposure.
However, as my article on the Benefits of Sun Exposure discusses, many studies of vitamin D supplementation have found no benefit from supplements, while sun exposure provides clear benefits.
That said, scientists recently discovered major math errors on early vitamin D studies that caused the recommended dose to be way, way too low. It may be that significantly higher doses of VitD will improve SAD symptoms, but more research must now be done.
I’ve found that a few relatively small lifestyle changes can make a big difference in my winter outlook and mood. Getting sunlight is the most important thing. It’s not difficult to do, but finding the motivation to get out in the cold is a struggle. Exercise helps, too.
Light therapy boxes and glasses help a lot as well, and are absolutely worth checking out if you haven’t tried.