News & Spotlights

Beat the Winter Blues with Light

January 18th, 2016
Education, Wellness

Beat the Winter Blues with Light


Wintertime—a season we often associate with the holidays, family gatherings, food, snow sports, and festivities. In spite of these positives, how are you affected by the darker side of winter, that is, the substantial reduction in daylight? Around this time of year, do you experience lower mood, decreased energy, increased sleep, stronger appetite, weight gain, or decreased social activity?

Many of us are affected by the fall and winter seasons. This is particularly true in northern latitudes, like Washington State, where changing seasons lead to fewer hours of daylight. On the more severe end of the spectrum, some individuals may develop seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD, a type of depression that affects individuals through darker seasons. Less exposure to light may alter melatonin and serotonin levels, as well as Vitamin D, which affect mood and circadian (or daily) rhythms. But you don’t have to meet criteria for SAD to be seasonally affected.

Since basking in sunshine is not an option during winter months here at home, what can you do to help yourself? Research has shown that Bright Light Therapy (BLT) has been effectively used to treat non-seasonal depression, SAD, sub-clinical seasonal mood symptoms, jetlag and insomnia.

Studies have shown that daily exposure to bright light (2,500-10,000 lux, a measure of brightness) within close proximity to the eyes for 30 minutes soon after awakening can relieve symptoms. Light boxes, or full-spectrum light devices, can offer that concentrated dose of bright light. The most common side effects include headache and visual disturbances. In one study by UW researchers, BLT in the workplace improved self-reported mood, energy, alertness and productivity in subjects with sub-clinical SAD.

If you don’t have access to a bright light source, grab a jacket, head outside and leave your sunglasses behind. Most of us spend entire days indoors at our workplaces. In winter we often go into work when it is still dark and leave work after sunset. The typical workplace has a level of illumination between 1/10th to 1/100th of the illumination encountered naturally outside—even on a cloudy day! So beat the blues by getting out on your lunch break. Better yet, take a brisk walk to improve energy even more.

Avery, D. C. (2001). Bright light therapy of subsyndromalseasonal affective disorder in the workplace:morning vs. afternoon exposure. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 103(4), 267.
Leichtfried, V. W. (2010). Bright light therapy: Minimizing light induced side effects with an innovative light setup. International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice, 14(4), 309-312.
Mead M. N. (2008). Benefits of sunlight: a bright spot for human health. Environ Health Perspect, 116(4),  A160-A167.