Do you find your mood drops during the winter months?

As we near the shortest day of the year, the hours of daylight most certainly feel shorter. Maybe like me, you love to watch the dancing flames as you snuggle up by the fireplace but find that the lack of daylight really impacts your mood.

Many people struggle with the lack of daylight over the winter months and for good reason, we all need light exposure to feel healthy and happy. In fact, it is estimated that 1 in 20 people in the UK have been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This does not include the thousands of people who have not been diagnosed.

Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder

What is SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that sets in during specific seasons of the year, especially autumn and winter. The majority of people are most impacted during the winter months, but some people do also experience SAD during the summer months, although this is much less common.

Symptoms of SAD

  • Lack of energy
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling sad, low, tearful, hopeless, and guilty
  • Changes in appetite with an increased need to snack all the time
  • Loss of interest in life in general
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Other symptoms of depression

What causes SAD?

As humans we need light to feel energised and happy. Our mood, energy and health depend on a healthy circadian rhythm, which requires healthy bouts of exposure to daylight. Insufficient light exposure has been linked to depression, weight gain, poor sleep, endocrine disruption (hypothyroidism & Hashimoto’s), and other chronic health conditions.

During the summer months, light intensity (measured in Lux) can be anywhere between 2,000 lux (on an overcast day), 20,000 lux (in the shade) to 100,000 lux (on a sunny day). The further north you live, the greater the impact to the available light. This means that the latitude and also the angle of the sun in the sky will determine how many hours of daylight you will receive during winter days. The lower the angle, the more the atmosphere is filtering out light. It is also worth bearing in mind that artificial indoor light provides less than 500 lux, so whilst it might feel that you are in the light, you won’t be getting the health benefits you need.

Key factors to consider when choosing a SAD light box.

  • Make sure that it emits 10,000 lux of cool white fluorescent light
  • Ensure eye safety. Always opt for UV-Free light as UV-light can damage your eyes.
  • Make sure it is designed to treat SAD
  • The size of the lightbox. A bigger size means you may need less time using it. A surface area of 30cm by 40cm should be ideal.
  • Think about how and when you are going to use it. I like something that is portable that I can pop on my desk or dining table or take with me when I go away.
  • Always check with your doctor first as there are certain conditions (lupus, glaucoma, bipolar) and medications (lithium, St. John’s Wort, or more) that may need special consideration as it could increase sensitivity to light.

Light Therapy

 How to use the lamp

Personally, I always recommend that you follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use. It will come with specific positional instructions. The angle and closeness of the light is key, so make sure you benefit. It is also important that you are not shining the light straight into your eyes, but that it is positioned at an angle instead.

I suggest that you use it daily over the winter months, or at least until daylight hours increase.

General guidance is to you use the light box for 20-30 minutes first thing in the morning, but I do know that many people benefit from adding a second dose in around 2-3pm just to add a top-up.

Avoid using it later in the day, as this can negatively impact your circadian rhythm and thus sleep. If you find that your sleep is deteriorating using your light box, then consider using it first thing in the morning, but for a shorter period of time.

My advice is that you experiment with the time to get the best results for yourself.

If you have eye problems such as glaucoma, cataracts, or eye damage from diabetes, it’s best to get your doctor’s advice on choosing a light box.

You may also want to consider some other practical tips to support you if you have SAD during the summer months.

  • Stay hydrated
  • Get outside as much as possible
  • Avoid spending time indoors and instead aim to spend all your time outdoors where possible.

Need Further Support

Reaching out for help can be difficult when you are feeling down. It is important to know that there are people around you that can offer additional support.

  • Samaritans – open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to listen to anything that’s upsetting you. You can call 116 123 (free from any phone),
  • SANEline – support for people experiencing a mental health problem or supporting someone else. You can call them on 0300 304 7000/07984967708 (4.30pm–10.30pm every day).
  • Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – support for anyone who identifies as male. You can call them on 0800 58 58 58 (5pm–midnight every day) or use their webchat service.

For more options, see our page on helplines and listening services. Mind’s Infoline can also help you find services that can support you.