Shining Light on SAD and the Winter Blues

by Deb Brothers-Klezmer, BSN, RN-BC, CRRN, NCTMB & Wendy Midgley,MED, RD, CDE

Remember the Light that you are and let it shine brightly at every    opportunity.”     –Jo Dunning–

LIGHT is a word that brings many associations to mind.  Light appears to us from many sources:  sunlight, moonlight, starlight, electricity, lightening, flashlights, camp-fires and candles, fireworks, solar power, the phosphorescence of Nature, fireflies flickering off and on during a hot summer night.

Light can be thought of in a mystical or spiritual way.  For example, there is a spiritual saying:  “The Light shines bright in the darkness.”  LIGHT can also be used to describe some people.  Examples:  “Her smile can really light up a room.”  “He gets all lit up when he talks about that subject.”  “That little baby is so full of light.”

In talking about LIGHT or feeling the effects of light, one may feel uplifted, inspired or expanded.  Whereas darkness is more often associated with contraction, or even fear and limitation.

Light can also be measured.  Light bulbs have so many watts.  Batteries have so many volts.  There is also an estimate for how quickly Light travels.

In our January BLOG, we will discuss the actual effects of LIGHT and DAYLIGHT (or lack of) on our health and well-being.

The term SAD  (Seasonal Affective Disorder) has become a well-known term for a depressive state (or “the winter blues”) that happens to some people during the late fall to winter months, especially in high latitude area of the globe where sunlight may be present for only a few hours each day in winter.  According to the Mayo Clinic, SAD can also occur in spring or early summer–but this is less typical. 

There is a wide spectrum of physical and psychological responses people may experience during fall and winter months.  Some individuals are more prone to experiencing SAD than others.  However, it is common for many individuals to feel less energetic and “more inward’ during the winter months—-just as Nature herself turns inward.  At the same time, everyone needs some degree of light and fresh air fo feel their best. 

What are the typical symptoms of class SAD?  They include depression, moodiness, anxiety, fatigue, trouble concentrating, lack of interest in normal activities, social withdrawal, changes in sleep patterns, “feeling heavy, ” actual weight gain, and a craving for carbohydrate foods.  (According to Dr. Andrew Weil, many of these symptoms are also those for hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, infectious mononucleosis, and other viral infections.  For more information, go to:  Click Health Centers, Click Mental Health, Click article:  “Beating the Winter Blues” )

NOTE:  Check with your MD if you think you have SAD–to rule out other possible medical conditions.

WHAT CAUSES SAD?:  Causes vary from one individual to the next.  Predisposition is related to genetics and biochemical make-up, family history, age, and sex.  Females are more prone to SAD than men, but men’s symptoms can be more severe when SAD occurs.  Women are also more likely to experience increased premenstrual symptoms (PMS) in the winter, along with SAD.  (“Chasing Away the Winter Blues”–Christiane Northrup, MD

Other factors include current stress level and a history of mental illness–such as bipolar disorder.

Physiological and biological factors ARE affected by changes in light and daylight, as well as by changes in hours of darkness.  We need “the right balance” of light and dark for body chemistry to work optimally.  Brain chemistry changes in fall/winter months include: (1) disruption of one’s biological clock or circadian rhythm (2) a drop in serotonin, the “happy neurotransmitter”, and (3) A disruption in melatonin, a natural hormone involved in sleep patterns and mood.  All these changes can be related to changes in daylight hours.  (See Mayo Clinic article).


  • Exposure to bright light (phototherapy,  white light therapy) and full spectrum lighting is the most recommended treatment for severe SAD symptoms. Light therapy may help improve mood in 50-80% of cases.

      —A check-up with your eye doctor is recommended before starting light therapy.

      —If you purchase a light box, place it on a table or desk so you can read, use a    computer,  or watch television while you do your treatment.  Or just relax and practice your breathing!

       –It is important to check recommendations from the manufacturer re: how close one can safely sit to a light box when receiving treatment.  All products are different.

       —People  who take drugs that increase sensitivity to light (such as certain psoriasis drugs, antibiotics,  or antipsychotics) should AVOID light therapy.

NOTE:  It is common for light boxes to use white light.  Some have blue light.  Blue light may be more effective for some individuals, but there is a greater chance of damage to the eyes with blue light.  Blue light may also inhibit deep sleep.  (both TV sets and computers transmit blue light.)

***FOR TIPS on how to purchase SAFE light boxes or SAFE full spectrum lighting: check out Dr. Oz’s 12-5-11 article at:

  • If depression continues: seek Psychotherapy and techniques such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  CBT involves deliberately changing one’s typical thought patterns and re-framing how one interprets and experiences winter (or whatever issue one is addressing).

      Another valuable therapy is DBT.  (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy).  With DBT, one is taught several CORE skills.  These include CBT (re: our thought processes and re-framing how we think)–as well as an array of techniques for emotional self-regulation, distress tolerance, assertiveness training, and cultivation of mindfulness.

NOTE:  If you are on any prescription medications (including antidepressants), these treatment suggestions are intended to enhance theirbenefits,  NOT replace medication.  Take all medications as prescribed by your physician.

  • Check your Vitamin D level.  Low vitamin D levels are associated with SAD in some cases.  Some patients report feeling significantly better (more energy, better mood, improved mental focus) when Vitamin D levels are at more optimum levels (50-70).  Recommended amount of Vitamin D supplement: 1000-2000 IU’s/day is standard dose.  4000 IUs/day might be recommended by your MD in winter. If you have a severe Vitamin D deficiency, your MD may recommend a 1x/week prescription level dose for 8-12 weeks (or longer.)

For milder cases of SAD or the winter blues, the following suggestions can be helpful:

  • Plan a daily walk outdoors–ideally at mid-day.  Skip the sunglasses, if possible,  because they block some colors of the light waves.

***A DAILY WALK CAN BE the BEST TREATMENT for the general “winter blahs.”  Everyone needs fresh air and daylight.”***

  • Re-arrange one’s office or room set-ups at home–to sit closer to a window and light during the day.  Open blinds and curtainsConsider getting a sky-light installed.

NOTE:  Even if daylight hasn’t begun, or it’s a bit cloudy, still have breakfast by a window looking outside.  If this is not possible, sit near a mirror that is reflecting from a window.

  • Choose Healthy Foods.  Winter food intakes tend to be too high in starches, sugars and fats.  Make a point to eat 3 balanced meals per day and choose healthy snacks when you have a snack.  Include a good protein source at each main meal: e.g. nuts, lean animal protein, grass-fed beef, organic low-fat dairy, eggs.  Make nourishing home-made soups, stews, and chilis.  Eliminate refined flours and sugars and other processed foods from your diet.
  • Include specific foods that may help regulate mood. Dr. Oz suggests 2 figs/day, Swiss chard, and tart cherries (especially including cherries before going to sleep–to improve melatonin levels.

NOTE: Eating a high amount of carbohydrates (processed starches and sugars) can increase levels of serotonin, ” the happy neurotransmitter”–which may be in short supply in winter–when you are not getting enough natural light.  (High carb intake can provide a quick pick-me-up, but it is often followed by a quick drop in energy.)  Processed carbohydrates can also deplete the body of vital vitamins and minerals that help the body handle stress and build immunity.  (C. Northrup: “Chasing Away the Winter Blues”)

  • Consider supplements.  Those suggested by Dr. Oz include:  St. John’s wort (an herbal prep for depression).  Omega 3 fish oils for improved mental acuity, and melatonin to improve mood and sleep.  (1 mg melatonin 2-3 hours before sleep.  Check with your MD first.)
  • Drink adequate fluids.  Even though you might not feel as thirsty in winter, adequate fluids are important.  Try aromatic herbal teas, home-made broth-based soups. And don’t overdo it with alcohol!
  • Wear light-colored clothing.  According to Dr. Oz, light colors like pale yellow or white can boost serotonin levels.  Avoid wearing excess black and red colors.  If you wear something black–enhance it with a colorful scarf or jewelry.
  • Sign up for a Yoga or Tai chi class. Or a spinning class or kick-boxing!  Keep your energy circulating!
  • Watch funny movies on a cold winter night or a snowy Sunday afternoon.
  • Listen daily to songs or music that uplift and inspire you, that give you a refreshed feeling. Find songs that actually contain the word LIGHT or make reference to it.  Examples:  “You Light up my Life” by Whitney Houston or “This Little Light of Mine”-(“I’m going to let it shine”),  “Ray of Light” by Madonna and “Shine a Light” by the Rolling Stones.
  • Plan a trip to a warm sunny place at the mid-point of winter.  You’ll have something to look forward to. Plus you’ll benefit from the sun when you actually go on vacation.
  • Think of winter as A TIME of OPPORTUNITY to be creative and participate in activities you have no time for in the summer. Gestate new ideas and plans–which can blossom fully in the Spring.
  • If winter is seeming “too long”–remember the words of the poet: Percy Bysshe Shelley: “If winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”   Winter is part of the natural cycle….and Spring is just around the corner.
  • Reconnect to your spiritual essence.  Remember that we live in, and are made up of, the invisible energy substance of Divine Light–a Field of Infinite Intelligence, Love and Gratitude–which connects all created Life.  This energy substance provides a supportive environment for great changes to take place, if we so choose to make changes.

NOTE:  If there is an emotion or old belief that imprisons you right now, choose to release it to the vibration of Divine Light for illumination and transformation.

“Let your Light shine.  Shine (your Light) within you so that you can shine on someone else.  Let your Light shine.”    –Oprah Winfrey

We wish you a winter of outdoor fun (if possible!), creative dreaming and planning, spiritual renewal, and a time of re-discovering and re-inventing yourself.

The Wellness Shifter Ladies!!!

Deb and Wendy

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s