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In winter, spend more time in the light to lighten your mood
Fight Back Against the SAD Weather
A cold and dark winter can trigger depression in people who suffer
from SAD. According to research or other evidence, the following
self-care steps may help you weather the storm and beat your blues:
- Soak in the sun. Spend more time outdoors to help improve the regulation of important brain chemicals that affect mood.
- Try light therapy. Reduce symptoms by using a full-spectrum fluorescent light during dark mornings or evenings.
- Work in a workout. Get an hour of aerobic or anaerobic exercise three times a week in bright light to improve mood.
About seasonal affective disorder
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is an extreme form of common seasonal
mood cycles, in which depression develops during the winter months.
How seasonal changes cause depression is unknown, but most of the
research into mechanisms and treatment has focused on changes in levels
of the brain chemicals melatonin and serotonin in response to changing
exposure to light and darkness.
What are the symptoms?
characterized by typical symptoms of depression, such as sadness,
hopelessness, and thoughts of suicide (in some cases), and "atypical"
depressive symptoms such as excessive sleep, lethargy, carbohydrate
cravings, overeating, and weight gain. The symptoms usually occur the
same time of year, typically fall and winter, and disappear with the
onset of spring and summer.
Light exposure research and treatment measures in "lux" units. For
example, the intensity of light on a high mountain at the equator at
midday is greater than 100,000 lux, compared with less than 11 lux
generated by a moonlit night. A well-lit kitchen or office may be
around 500 lux.
Dietary changes that may be helpful
Cravings for simple carbohydrates are increased in SAD, and women
diagnosed with this form of winter depression have been found to eat
more carbohydrates, both sweets and starches, than do healthy women.
These women also report eating in response to emotionally difficult
conditions, anxiety, depression, and loneliness more frequently than
healthy women, but eating patterns associated with SAD are distinct
from those of women with eating disorders.
People with SAD process sugar differently in winter compared with
summer or after light therapy in winter. Changes in neurotransmitters
that may affect cravings also occur in women with SAD. Because
consumption of carbohydrates can influence neurotransmitter levels,
some authorities have speculated that eating simple carbohydrates may
be a form of self-medication in people with SAD. A review of the
research on diet and mood found that, while eating simple carbohydrates
in reaction to depressed mood does bring about a temporary mood lift,
other evidence suggests that long-term control of negative moods is,
for some people, best achieved by eliminating simple carbohydrates from
the diet. No research has yet been conducted, however, to evaluate the
benefits of a diet low in simple carbohydrates (or any other dietary
intervention) for people with SAD.
Lifestyle changes that may be helpful
Exercise can ease depression and improve well-being, in some cases as
effectively as antidepressant medications. One study found that both
one hour of aerobic exercise three times per week and the same amount
of anaerobic exercise were significantly and equally effective in
reducing symptoms of depression. In a preliminary study of women with
SAD, exercise while exposed to light was more likely to be associated
with fewer seasonal depressive symptoms than was exercise performed
with little light exposure. A controlled study of 120 indoor employees
used relaxation training as the placebo in a study of fitness training,
light exposure, and winter depressive symptoms. Fitness training was
performed two to three times per week while exposed to either bright
light (2,500-4,000 lux) or ordinary light (400-600 lux). Compared to
relaxation, exercise in bright light improved general mental health,
social functioning, depressive symptoms, and vitality, while exercise
in ordinary light improved vitality only.
Holistic approaches that may be helpful
Diminished sunlight exposure in winter contributes to changes in brain
chemistry and plays a role in seasonal mood changes. Artificial lights
have been widely used to increase light exposure during winter months.
Many studies show the benefit of light therapy in the treatment of SAD.
In a controlled trial, 96 patients with SAD were treated with light at
6,000 lux for 1.5 hours in either morning or evening, or with a sham
negative ion generator, which was used as the placebo. After three
weeks of treatment, morning light produced complete or near-complete
remission for 61% of patients, while evening light helped 50%, and
placebo helped 32%. Another study similarly found morning light to have
more antidepressant activity than evening light for people with SAD.
This study also found that patterns of melatonin production were
altered in seasonal depression, and that morning light therapy shifted
this pattern toward those of control subjects who did not have seasonal
depression. Blood flow to certain regions of the brain was measured
after light therapy and was increased in seasonal depression patients
who benefited from the light therapy. The increase in regional brain
blood flow did not occur in those patients who did not respond to the
light therapy. Light therapy begun prior to the onset of winter
depression appears to have a preventive effect in people susceptible to
A review of clinical trials of light therapy for SAD concluded that
the intensity of the light is related to the effectiveness of the
treatment. A higher response rate was seen in trials where light
intensity was greater, compared with trials that used light therapy of
lower intensity. Red and potentially harmful ultraviolet wavelengths
are not necessary for a response to light therapy.
A study of the adverse side effects from high-intensity light
therapy found them to be common, mild, and brief. Among people who
underwent brief treatment with 10,000 lux, 45% experienced side effects
such as headaches and eye and vision changes. Described as mild and
temporary, they did not interfere with treatment.
Dawn simulation is a form of light therapy involving gradually
increasing bedside light in the morning. In a comparison study, dawn
simulation using 100-300 lux for 60-90 minutes every morning improved
symptoms of SAD similarly to bright light therapy using 1,500-2,500 lux
for two hours every morning.
A negative ionizer is a device that emits negatively charged
particles into the air. Negative air ionization may be useful in
treating SAD. One double-blind trial compared the benefits of
high-density negative ionization, providing 2.7 million ions per cubic
centimeter, and low-density negative ionization, providing 10,000 ions
per cubic centimeter, for people with SAD. Atypical depressive symptoms
improved by 50% or more for 58% of patients receiving the high-density
ionization for 30 minutes daily, while only 15% of those receiving
low-density ionization had 50% or greater improvement. There were no
side effects, and all of the patients who responded to the therapy
relapsed when ionization was discontinued. In another controlled trial,
high-density ionization was found equally as effective as light
therapy, and both were significantly more effective than low-density