For those of us who live a significant distance from the equator, the closer we get to the winter solstice, the more we can get dragged into serious doldrums. Though many of us are not clinically diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as the winter blues, we are often still susceptible to the mental effects of gloomy skies and shorter days. Those suffering serious depression should seek professional help, but fortunately for those looking for a way to exert some control over manageable depression, there is a natural prescription that is readily available: bright artificial light.
How Much Light?
The length of exposure and brightness of light necessary to see appreciable positive effects on mood is going to vary from case to case, but you will want to get as close to daylight as will be practical. Since there is not a good general recommendation for this, some personal experimentation may be necessary. Of course, safety is always paramount, so don’t go too extreme. A study by the Lund Institute of Technology in Sweden also showed that exposure to light that is too bright can even have a negative effect on mood.
Timing is Everything
Several studies have indicated the importance of when you expose yourself to bright light. Whenever you normally get up is when you need bright light the most as this resets your circadian clock and tells your system it’s time to get up and get after your pursuits. Unfortunately, many of us get up before the sun rises, which often means we don’t have good bright light exposure when we need it most.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, bright light or even dim light when you should be sleeping has been shown to lead to an increase in depression by disrupting a person’s circadian rhythm. This means that people can benefit from turning off lights in the evening or at least dimming them in advance of bedtime. If you can’t do without light in the evening, it may be a good idea to invest in dimmers for your light fixtures.
If you’ve already optimized your natural lighting through windows and you feel you could use more or brighter light, there are plenty of options in terms of light fixtures. Ceiling or eye-level lighting are effective for improving mood, but bear in mind that the further away you are from the light, the less light you are receiving. You also don’t want the light to be extremely direct either. With any bright lights, it is recommendable to use a diffuser for the sake of protecting your eyes. The type of fixture you use may also limit the exposure to your retina.
As for bulbs, high-intensity fluorescent ones tend to make a good option for boosting your mood as they are more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs. Fluorescent tubes can also be used to cover a larger area with light as opposed to centrally concentrated light that can be damaging to the retina.
LED bulbs are most energy efficient and there is some evidence to suggest that blue LED light of moderate intensity can help fight depression, but studies on the effects are preliminary and may not yet account for possible retinal damage. The LED light boxes designed for therapy purposes also tend to be fairly expensive and may not have much advantage over other artificial light aside from the energy efficiency.
Using bright light alone to beat back the winter blues is probably not the best strategy. Balancing the mind against depressors that seem intrinsic to daily life generally involves a combination of lifestyle habits such as exercise and socializing among other things. Light can be an overlooked factor though, so if you have trouble shaking the blues more in the winter, consider lighting up your life.