Beat the winter blues

Use light therapy to treat seasonal affective disorder.
drawing of man in bed
With less light in the winter months, going to bed earlier can help with mental health. Courtesy iStock/Nadia Bormotova

I was surprised when one of my teachers at the Naturopathic Institute told us to stop wearing sunglasses unless sunlight poses a safety risk, like while driving. It’s through our eyes that we absorb the most UV light from the sun, our best source for catalyzing our body’s production of vitamin D, a hormone that affects many functions of the body, including those that contribute to feeling joy, balanced emotions and appropriate energy levels.

Since Michigan winters put us at a disadvantage to soaking up the mood-enhancing rays, many people have turned to light therapy lamps.

These lamps can be particularly helpful for those who struggle with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a term that captures a collection of symptoms, like lethargy, loss of pleasure, inability to concentrate, low mood and uncontrollable food cravings.

Light therapy lamps can be purchased for under $200. It’s recommended that you sit — with eyes open — in front of the lamp for at least 30 minutes, as close to the start of your day as possible.

Not just any lamp will do. Those designed specifically for health benefits contain up to 10,000 lux, the measurement for light intensity, which is 100 times brighter than your typical light bulb. A bright sunny day is about 50,000 lux or more.

Light therapy lamps have helped many people who struggle during the short days of Michigan winters avoid antidepressants by regulating natural daily rhythms, called circadian rhythms, that influence sleep and hormones. Lamps also help increase serotonin production; the body’s natural “feel good” chemical.

In this day and age, most people are inside working while sunlight is present. Even when we are outside, most of our skin — the other way to absorb the sun’s light — is covered to keep us warm.

These factors, combined with technological advancements, like electricity, light bulbs and things like email and cell phones that enable us to work after we leave the office, allow us to live much differently than how our ancestors lived, which was influenced by seasonal transitions of the sun.

Biological evolution, however, hasn’t kept up with the fast pace of innovation.

While light therapy lamps and vitamin D supplements help support our bodies and minds amidst the impact of increasing technology, there are other ways to support yourself naturally during seasonal transitions.

Adjust lighting

Align with natural seasonal rhythms as much as possible. Many of our ancestors literally couldn’t work without daylight, so follow suit, and allow yourself to work within contained hours, limit your exposure to screens after the sun sets, use candlelight or dim artificial lighting closer to bedtime, and give yourself more time to relax and play.

Get deeper sleep

Go to sleep earlier. With less light and more darkness, our bodies are biologically wired for more sleep during shorter days. And good sleep is essential for a healthy body and mind. With the pervasiveness of screens, from cell phones to computers, tablets and TVs, the blue light drastically affects circadian rhythms. It may be helpful to invest in blue-light blocking glasses to use in the evening. I’ve found a two-pair pack for $9, and they’ve affected my sleep in a profoundly positive way.

Play outside

Get outside as often as possible. Aim for taking a walk every day to get some natural sunlight, pulling up your sleeves to expose your skin if temperatures allow. And, of course, give your eyes freedom from sunglasses. Sitting in front of a window doesn’t work, as most windows have built-in UV protection, disabling your skin from absorbing the sun’s nutrients.

Don’t suffer alone

When feelings of low self-worth hit, working with a skilled professional can help you explore why these beliefs exist.

Seek specific physiological support

Seasonal affective disorder symptoms also may be a result of a physiological imbalance in the body. Many of my clients who experience these symptoms have benefitted from herbal remedies and other nutrient-based supplements that support the digestive system, thyroid and other endocrine glands.

Explore other light-based modalities

Color therapy lights and Lucia light therapy are two systems that rely on light as a primary influencer for shifting physical and mental health. You might find a local practitioner offering these services or purchase one for home use.

Move your body

Go sledding, ice skating, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing. Dance. Take walks. Exercise cannot be overstated.

Eat with the season

In Michigan, root vegetables are prevalent during this time of year and provide many of the nutrients our bodies need with less sunlight. It’s also wise to eat warm foods rather than cold foods. Try a warmed fruit bowl instead of a frozen berry smoothie. The gut is one of the primary producers of serotonin, so loading up on more produce rather than packaged foods and inflammatory-inducing foods also helps minimize SAD symptoms.

Kara McNabb, of Magnolia Wellness, is a traditional naturopathic practitioner and somatic therapist who helps people get to the root to improve their mental and physical health. You can follow her on Instagram at @grandrapidsnaturopath.

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