Shine some light on those winter blues

The days are short, the skies are cloudy, and many of us are feeling the effects of not enough light. Ten percent of people in Seattle experience full-blown seasonal affective disorder (SAD), with symptoms including depression, low energy, difficulty waking up, craving for carbohydrates, weight gain and irritability.

Another 20 percent experience milder versions, which is know as winter depression.

In my neurofeedback practice, I see a lot more depressed people in the winter than in the summer. I am happy to be able to recommend a remedy that is free and feels good: take a daily walk outside in the brightest part of the afternoon.

In a study done in Seattle, women who walked briskly outdoors for 20 minutes a day five days a week showed substantial relief from winter depression. The women also took supplements that improve mood: 400 mcg folic acid, 50 mg vitamin B1, 50 mg vitamin B2, 50 mg vitamin B6, 400 IU vitamin D and 200 mcg selenium.

Effectiveness of light depends on how much shines in your eyes for how long. You might need more than 20 minutes. Light is increased when it reflects off water, so you might try a walk around Seward Park, looking out into the lake. Avoid wearing sunglasses or a hat that shades your eyes, unless you are squinting. Looking at blue sky is helpful, but don't look directly at the sun.

Light improves mood in three ways. The first is by resetting the circadian rhythm that often gets off-track with insomnia, depression, and SAD. The second is by decreasing the sleep hormone melatonin during the day, so that we feel more awake. And the third is by increasing the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, in the same way that antidepressants like Prozac do. Not bad for something that, used correctly, has no negative side effects and takes so little effort.

Light in a box

If you can't get enough light from the sun, you might want to try a therapeutic light box. These vary from extremely bright, 10,000 lux, down to 2,500 lux. The brighter ones work with fewer minutes per day, but can cause eyestrain. You don't need to stare at the light; you can just have it close by and in your field of vision as you eat breakfast or work at your desk.

Some boxes are as big as a suitcase and others are book-size. They can double as desk lamps, and some come on visors that you can wear as you exercise. One model has blue light, which seems to be the most powerful wavelength, so it can be less bright and still be effective.

As you research different models, look for studies demonstrating effectiveness. Some lamps, for instance, are probably not bright enough to be of much help. I like the Apollo models, which are all well researched. Whatever product you choose, look for one that is UL-approved, UV-shielded, and flicker-free.

Light boxes cost $200-$500, and some insurance policies will pay for them, if physician-prescribed.

Light to wake up by

Another device that is useful for SAD is called a dawn simulator. Developed at the University of Washington, it is a light that comes on gradually over the hour before you wake up. It wakes you up pleasantly, resets your circadian rhythm, and brightens mood all day. It's the timing of the light that makes it work, so it doesn't have to be very bright. These cost about $100, or you could try hooking up a regular lamp to a plug-in timer, set to come on about 30 minutes before wake-up time. There's no research on this, but I think it would help.

With whatever light device you choose, look for a 30-day return policy. If it hasn't helped by then, you can send it back.

Getting more help

If you are severely depressed, please get assistance from a physician or therapist who can help you feel better faster. And if you are on psychoactive medication, keep in touch with your physician in case you need to adjust your dosage once the light therapy starts to work.

Light is a necessary part of good health, just like good food and sleep. In Seattle in the winter, we have to work to get enough of it, but it's worth it for how much better we will feel.

Elizabeth Walker, Ph.D., is a neurofeedback therapist in private practice in South Seattle, working with people with depression, anxiety, ADD, migraines and other mind/body problems. You can contact her at or[[In-content Ad]]