Light Therapy in a Dark Land

If this is broad daylight in the wintertime, can you see why I'm feeling a little SAD?
I’ve known for quite some time that I am affected by winter’s short days and lack of daylight. Even in sunny Colorado, the lack of light gets to me in December & January, so I knew I’d have some issues when I moved a good deal further north. Not surprisingly, nearly 10% of Finns suffer from some sort of Seasonal Affective Disorder, so I’m not alone in feeling blue even now that we’re gaining 2-3 minutes of sunlight per day (thank Akka!).

What I should also have accounted for during this particular dark winter is that I would be experiencing culture shock, dealing with the rest of my family’s culture shock, and dealing with SAD all in one fairly concentrated period of time. Uh oh. The good news is that I’ve made it through the shortest day without killing anyone. The bad news is that I’ve been sleeping 10 hours a night, carb loading, and feeling downright sluggish most of the (very short) day.

We bought the Philips Wake-Up light, which provides the 10,000 lumens necessary to qualify it as light therapy, so I thought I was being fairly proactive. I also bought nice fish oil & Vitamin D supplements, although I have to admit that I haven’t been taking them (d’oh!). I’ve even been adding more fish to our diet in hopes of replicating the well-being-despite-the-dark that the Icelandic people enjoy (posited to also be due to Vitamin D & fish oil a plenty).

However, I learned today that I haven’t been using the wake-up light correctly. Across the room on our dresser, the light is enough to wake us up, but not nearly close enough to me to impact my circadian rhythms. Additionally, I’m supposed to be exposed to the light for at least 30 minutes each morning around the time I want to wake up. I guess that proves that light therapy isn’t just a psychosomatic phenomenon, because if it was, I’d be feeling better by now and I’m really not.

In addition to light therapy, the Mayo Clinic suggests getting outside and exercising, as well as taking an Omega-3 supplement, in their article on SAD. I guess I need to start actually taking those supplements I purchased! A recent Helsinki newspaper article on SAD seconds those recommendations and adds a third: a week’s vacation somewhere sunny (boy could I use that right now–do you think health insurance would cover it?!). Of course, it also says only 1% of Finns truly suffer from SAD and claims that what 10-30% of Finns actually suffer from is a milder form of SAD they’re calling sub-syndromal SAD where you just get fat and sleepy for a few months, and possibly feel down in the dumps, but do not need serious counseling or antidepressants.

So, as a little bit of an experiment, I’ll document how well my regime of supplements (DHA & Vitamin D), a daily walk in what little daylight there is, a daily 30-minute dose of the light therapy light, and some additional exercise combats my sub-syndromal SAD over the next month. I’m guessing that the biggest factor in the anticipated mood improvement will be that extra 2-3 minutes of daylight we’re gaining each day, but we’ll see. If I feel significantly better next week, I’m probably going to cast my lot with the vitamins and light box…Next year, perhaps I’ll be able to report on whether a tropical mid-winter vacation makes an impact too!

What about you? Do you suffer from the winter blues? How do you deal with it?

7 thoughts on “Light Therapy in a Dark Land

  1. I think SAD-type symptoms are way more common than people realize. You might just chalk it up to holiday blues, holiday weight gain, not liking the cold, etc., but then, for me at least, doing something to combat it has made a huge difference even after just 5 days (I think that’s the light therapy, so I’ll see if I get a second boost a little later from the Vitamin D & exercise).

    I’m taking 3K vitamin D daily, so we’ll see how it goes. I am totally kicking myself for not starting it in October instead of waiting until I felt lousy! And I’m especially kicking myself because Gabriel seems to share my winter blues, so if I would have put him on some a bit earlier, it might have made his transition to Finland a little easier. Ugh.

  2. I’d go with the vit D. I’m on 2K mg daily, but since it’s winter, I upped it to 4K. I see a real difference. The thing is that you have to take it every single day, since it needs to build up in your system. Then you start seeing a difference. I’d say, about a month’s worth. I had a blood test this past spring and was SERIOUSLY deficient. Now, I’m not feeling SAD even though it’s still winter. I was happier going into this fall than I have been in years past. It was pretty cool!

    Hang in there!

  3. I’d like to live in the Southern hemisphere sometime, just as a test. The shortening days here come with so much more loaded on them – back to school, fall, birthdays, holidays, brown, dead, cold that I can never tell if what I experience is truly SAD or other things. T thinks it’s SAD because he notices that I struggle more as we lose light, but how could I know?

    I’ve been SO BAD this winter about getting out. Good for you for taking proactive steps to help yourself out!

  4. The year I lived in Boston I gained at least 20 pounds and slept like a log. I also felt depressed and sluggish. For me, lots of walks outdoors, social outings (laughter = sunshine), but most of all the spring seemed to help. If I ever moved north again, I would do what you are doing — the light, the supplements, and maybe a dance class, and or take up random acts of kindness and or weirdness to keep me smiling and laughing.

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