/ Health

Do you use a SAD lamp to lift your mood?

The clocks have gone back, the days have got much shorter and the evenings are suddenly much darker. How do you cope with winter setting in?

At this time of year, most of us find ourselves wanting to eat more and sleep longer. An evening snuggled up with a mince pie and hot chocolate might be far more preferable to going out when it’s cold and dark outside.

But for some people, this feeling of lethargy is accompanied by feelings of sadness and a persistent lack of energy. In 2016, a former colleague discussed her experiences here on Which? Conversation.

For most, these changes in mood and energy levels may be quite mild, often known as the ‘winter blues’. But for others, the change in seasons can cause more severe symptoms of depression, which can have a significant impact on their ability to function normally.

This minority of people suffer from ‘seasonal affective disorder’ (SAD), a recognised mental health disorder which can be debilitating.

Season change

I have suffered from SAD for as long as I can remember. Every year, usually around the end of October when the clocks go back, my mood suddenly plummets and even the simplest things become impossible to do.

I feel exhausted and I crave sleep. I feel unbearably miserable and on the verge of tears almost all of the time. I become anxious and unable to make the simplest decisions. I can’t concentrate on anything.

Normal daily tasks become overwhelming. Just getting out of bed and showing up for work becomes a monumental challenge.

It is a difficult condition to manage, there is no easy cure. But the things I have found most helpful over the years are my SAD lamps and daylight bulb.

Shine a light

Although there is no conclusive evidence to say whether or not SAD lamps work, light therapy is a popular treatment for SAD.

It’s thought SAD may be linked to lower levels of sunlight in the winter, which may then trigger a chemical imbalance in the brain.

SAD lamps shine a very bright, cool light which is usually at least 10 times the intensity of ordinary household lights. So they can be used to simulate exposure to sunlight.

By far, the SAD light I’ve found most effective has been the daylight bulb I have in my home, which replaces my hallway ceiling light in the winter.

Sunshine substitute

Perhaps this is because I can switch it on first thing in the morning and it lights up the whole room, so I can trick myself into thinking the sun has come up when it’s still dark outside.

Before I got the daylight lamp, it could sometimes take me hours to get out of bed in the morning. Now, I might still be grumpy but at least I can make it out from under the covers.

The only thing I have to be cautious about with the daylight bulb is not to have it on too much in the evening. As with all SAD lamps, too much exposure to the bright light in the evening can interfere with your body clock and make it harder for you to get to sleep.

I also have a small, portable SAD lamp. It’s probably not the most effective model – there are lots of different types out there and some are bigger and brighter than others.

Work well-being

But I like it because it’s small enough to bring to work and have it on my desk. The light from the SAD lamp just needs to reach your eyes, you don’t need to look directly into it. So I can just have it switched on for a couple of hours while I work.

The lamp has prompted a few discussions and questions from curious colleagues, but it’s also led to conversations with others who find the winter difficult but hadn’t considered using a SAD lamp before.

Even people who don’t have such severe symptoms can find the dreary days and dark nights tough, and might benefit from a SAD lamp.

Do you find the winter months difficult? If so, have you considered using a SAD lamp? What have you found most effective in lifting your mood?

Comments
John K says:
16 November 2018

I have a special lamp similar to the one described which I used to use around this time of year, but a couple of years ago I replaced some of my kitchen spotlamps with a colour balance of 6500K, rated at 5W. They are bright white lamps which have a similar effect for me, especially in the morning. Thus I no longer use a specific ‘therapy lamp’.

Patrick Taylor says:
16 November 2018

Some info … how often do you have your Vitamin D level and what is it?

Attributes that may increase your risk of SAD include:

Being female. SAD is diagnosed four times more often in women than men.
Living far from the equator. SAD is more frequent in people who live far north or south of the equator. For example, 1 percent of those who live in Florida and 9 percent of those who live in New England or Alaska suffer from SAD.
Family history. People with a family history of other types of depression are more likely to develop SAD than people who do not have a family history of depression.
Having depression or bipolar disorder. The symptoms of depression may worsen with the seasons if you have one of these conditions (but SAD is diagnosed only if seasonal depressions are the most common).
Younger Age. Younger adults have a higher risk of SAD than older adults. SAD has been reported even in children and teens.

The causes of SAD are unknown, but research has found some biological clues:

People with SAD may have trouble regulating one of the key neurotransmitters involved in mood, serotonin. One study found that people with SAD have 5 percent more serotonin transporter protein in winter months than summer months. Higher serotonin transporter protein leaves less serotonin available at the synapse because the function of the transporter is to recycle neurotransmitter back into the pre-synaptic neuron.
People with SAD may overproduce the hormone melatonin. Darkness increases production of melatonin, which regulates sleep. As winter days become shorter, melatonin production increases, leaving people with SAD to feel sleepier and more lethargic, often with delayed circadian rhythms.
People with SAD also may produce less Vitamin D. Vitamin D is believed to play a role in serotonin activity. Vitamin D insufficiency may be associated with clinically significant depression symptoms.

NIMH

I am a great fan of Vit D as it has minor effects all over the body. I think current research is ruling out miracle cures, cancer, and bone strengthening etc.

Patrick Taylor says:
16 November 2018

I am not convinced that taking it in the winter months is actually sufficient as this makes an assumption that you are manufacturing enough Vitamin D during the summer and that will provide a sufficent base level for the additional tablets.

To have a test was around £25 when I last had one in the UK. AFAIR it was SandwellNHS who provided the home test kit and provide the answers.

There are several reasons why people may not be generating sufficient Vitamin D . Apparently smog is excellent for screening out the necessary wavelength of sunshine. Ditto sun creams, cosmetics, too much clothing, insufficient time in adequate sunshine.

AFAIR can recall if you lived in Spain you have enough exposure in ten minutes in the summer. In the winter it requires two hours. I believe the selected ciry was Valencia for the data.

I suggest a test kit would provide you with an interesting base which might show that your levels are at the recommended level as for the US or Canada. The UK level was considerably lower. In any event it may rule out a possible cause.

In passing readers might be surprised I had 42 days in the tropics in and decided a few months later to check the Vitamin D level – I was barely above pass mark whereas my wife who does lie in the sun was significantly better. A course of cheap pills then bought us up to the North American level.

You might find this article relevant given the charity HQ is situated in one of the most polluted parts of London so St James Park might be sunny at times but with impacted solar UVB.

Finally, my response to sluggishness is to play loudly dance music that would get the body invigorated. I am not suggesting waltz [!] but say Chic doing Le Freak, or Shiny Happy People, Happy or similar.similar. Basically use upbeat music.

I was diagnosed as having a Vit D deficiency a few years ago so take supplements as recommended by my GP, a stronger dose in the winter than during the summer.

Patrick Taylor says:
16 November 2018

Oops forgot the limk
blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2015/04/23/why-so-gloomy-in-sun-deprived-china-only-5-have-healthy-levels-of-vitamin-d/

My SAD table lamp provides a lovely light but within a few minutes it begins to irritate my face and exposed skin. There is a fan attached for some reason and this makes it a noisy light rather than just an illuminator. I also have some adjustable LED table lights that give out a white light in three stages of brightness. These are very good and work as table lights but not as room illuminators.

It would take more than a SAD lamp to lift my mood in these dark times.

Anna K says:
16 November 2018

Lucy, I also suffer from the winter blues and this year has been particularly hard – all I want to do is go straight to bed when I get home (which the dog does NOT like), and I find it so hard to get out of bed in the morning. It’s been even worse since the clocks changed – it was like a switch had been turned off in my brain.

I take all sorts of supplements for it (Vitamin D, Omega 3, St John’s Wort) and last year bought an extremely bright H-A-P-P-Y cardigan that I wear whenever I feel my mood needs a lift, but it doesn’t seem to be working as well this winter. I’ve been thinking about getting an SAD lamp, but I’ve not been sure when it would be most useful to have it on, as the evenings are hardest for me. As I write this from my workdesk and it’s getting increasingly dark outside, I’ve decided that an SAD table lamp for the last few hours at work might be a good thing to try. I’ve not thought about changing lightbulbs either so may give that a go…fingers crossed!

Here is the full Cochrane review mentioned by Lucy in her introduction: https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD011269.pub2/epdf/full

Patrick Taylor says:
16 November 2018

Always lovely to have data. Thanks Wavechange.

First, acceptance that shorter daylight hours is bound to alter ones mood as an inevitable consequence and that women are much more likely to be affected by it than men, helps some people to make the necessary adjustments to cope with neurological changes taking place in the brain and elsewhere in the body at this time of the year,

Since all life is dependent upon the sun to survive, just as deciduous trees stop producing clorophyll when the lowering Sun in the autumn sky loses its ability to photosynthesize their leaves, producing a display of the most magnificent colours before they are finally shed and fall to the ground, leaving a bare skeleton to face up to what the coming winter months will throw at them before the rising sun will again awaken them in early spring to begin the whole cycle again.

Ironically the earth, on its annual orbit around the Sun is closer to it in our wintertime, but because the earth is tilted on its axis away from it in the Northern Hemisphere the benefit is felt more in the Southerrn Hemisphere which is mostly ocean, apart from the Antipodean countries where you will probably witness professional cricketers wearing what appears to be lard on their noses!

Unfortunately, modern-day humans, unlike trees and hibernating animals, have to keep working to survive during the winter months and extra artificial light and vitamin D is needed to replace the lack of natural light produced by the Sun, which is absorbed through the skin to nourish bones and tissue during the summer months to help boost the immune system.

Unfortunately, serotonin, a neurotransmitter, (90-95% of which is found in the gut) isn’t found in foods, but tryptophan, an amino acid found in proteins, a precursor to serotonin and the vitamin niacin, also known as nicotinic acid or vitamin B3 is, and can help to boost ones mood if mixed with carbohydrates. Carbs cause the body to release more insulin, which promotes amino-acid absorbation and leaves tryptophan in the blood. If you mix high-tryptophan foods with carbs you may get a serotonin boost. Healthy carbohydrates such as rice, oatmeal or wholemeal bread are recommended.

Foods that are most likely to increase tryptophan are: Eggs, Cheese, Milk, Pineapple, Tofu, Salmon, Nuts and Seeds and Turkey, so when you have finished tucking into your Christmas turkey lunch followed by a high carb pudding and relish in that feel good factor that follows, it may be due to its tryptophan content and not necessarily just the satisfaction and pleasure experienced after eating a hearty and well cooked tasty meal.

We are having an especially sunny Autumn, in our area at least, which does make you feel good. I spent three hours working in the garden this afternoon and felt quite invigorated. Unfortunately, because of the cold wind not much of my flesh, was exposed to the sunshine but spending plenty of time outdoors throughout the year and walking rather than taking the car does mean that I think I get an adequate build up of Vitamin D. I can sympathise with people who get depressed at this time of the year – gloominess like yesterday when the country was blanketed by cloud with a damp atmosphere does get on people’s nerves. Personally I feel it is better to get up at daybreak and take full advantage of the diminishing day lengths rather than use artificial light sources. Frequent movement is also useful but we have become a nation of sedentary computer operators peering at screens large or small. That must affect our mood – especially some of the content we see. Agricultural workers don’t seem to have the same problems so perhaps it is office, shop and industrial work that is the cause of any malaise.

Hugh Fennell says:
27 February 2019

Good article!
For me meditation is the best way to boost or control my mood. Also, music can lift my mood in some situations. I am a fan of natural methods of treatment, because of no side effects.
Also, I have fond an article(https://www.smartpillwiki.com/super-brain-yoga-exercises-gym-books-reviews-and-research/) about yoga and its benefits for the mental health. Want to try it soon and hope to discover one more method to becoe healthier.