Proper Light Exposure Is Crucial Treatment for SAD
According to an overview of SAD in the journal Psychiatry,17 “Light therapy is established as the best available treatment for SAD.” Indeed, light therapy alone has been found to be more effective than the antidepressant Prozac.18 Even placebo was more effective than the drug — a finding that highlights the fact that drugs are not the answer for this condition.
Interestingly, while daylight as a whole is beneficial to fight off the winter blues, blue light has been found to be particularly beneficial. According to one 2010 study,19 blue light appears to play a key role in your brain’s ability to process emotions, and its results suggest that spending more time in blue-enriched light could help prevent SAD.
It may be even more effective than the bright white light typically used in light boxes to treat SAD and other forms of depression. In a previous interview, researcher Dan Pardi explains the peculiar effect blue light has on your brain, which sheds further light on why it’s so important to expose yourself to blue light during daytime hours, and why you need to avoid it at night:
Blue light is prevalent in outdoor light, so your body absorbs the most during the summer and much less in the winter. Because of this, the researchers suggested that adding blue light to indoor lighting, as opposed to the standard yellow lights typically used, may help boost mood and productivity year-round, and especially during the winter.
Timing and Intensity of Light Exposure
If you know that SAD symptoms tend to come back for you every winter, you may want to start light therapy in late summer. Keep in mind, however, that blue light at night should be avoided as it will inhibit melatonin production and impair sleep.
So, to be clear, you only want to expose yourself to blue light in the morning, and possibly afternoon, but not in the evening. Findings differ on the issue of the most effective timing, but at least one meta-analysis20 found the largest mean effect size among those exposed to bright light in the morning and evening.
To be on the safe side, I’d suggest avoiding light therapy once the sun begins to set, to avoid further disruption of your circadian rhythm. The light intensity is also important. Outdoor light is in the neighborhood of 10,000 lux, and this is the level of intensity you’re looking for.21
This is about 100 times stronger than a normal light bulb, so to be effective, you’ll need to get a special light box, and make sure it generates at least 10,000 lux and emits white and blue light, not yellow or infrared. As noted by the authors of a 2015 paper addressing the assessment and treatment of SAD:22
Additional Treatment Strategies for SAD
In addition to optimizing your vitamin D and getting daily light therapy, the following strategies may also be helpful in the treatment of SAD:
While there are individual differences, as a general rule, aim for eight hours of sleep per night. If you struggle with insomnia or poor quality sleep, review the many suggestions listed in “Sleep — Why You Need It and 50 Ways to Improve It.”
|Clean up your diet — A factor that cannot be overlooked is your diet. Foods have an immense impact on your mood and ability to cope, and eating a diet of fresh, whole foods as described in my nutrition plan will best support your mental health. |
Refined sugar and processed fructose are known to have a very detrimental impact on your brain function and mental health in general. A classic book on this subject, “The Sugar Blues” by William Dufty, delves into this topic in great detail. Cutting out artificial sweeteners will also eliminate your chances of suffering their toxic effects.
Interestingly, vegetarians are four times more likely to suffer from SAD than nonvegetarians, so a primarily plant-based diet may not be ideal during the winter season. Vegetarians are also twice as likely to suffer from nonseasonal depression,27 which suggests nutrient deficiencies may be involved in both.
|Optimize your omega-3 status — One nutrient that is extremely important for healthy brain function and mental health is marine-based omega-3, found in small fatty fish such as sardines and anchovies. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is another good source, as is krill oil, if you need a supplement. As with vitamin D, your best bet is to get tested, to ensure your omega-3 index is at 8 percent or above. |
In closing, it may be worth noting that it’s natural for your body to want to slow down somewhat in the wintertime. While this can be difficult when your work and personal life dictate otherwise, allowing yourself to slow down a bit and surrender to the overwinter process32 may ultimately help you to respect your body’s circadian rhythm and recharge.
That said, this doesn’t mean you should plant yourself on the couch for the winter and not venture outdoors. On the contrary, staying active and spending time outdoors during the day are among the best “cures” for SAD.
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