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Lack of sunlight during winter can lead to the condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
This can make you feel lethargic, gloomy, and irritable. However, while daylight as a whole is beneficial to fight off the syndrome, different colors of light seem to affect your body in different ways.
Blue light can affect your mind, including mood. And according to a new study, blue light might play a key role in your brain’s ability to process emotions. The study results suggest that spending more time in blue-enriched light could help prevent SAD.
“Studies have shown that blue light improves alertness and mental performance … [T]he researchers discovered that blue light, more so than the green light, seemed to stimulate and strengthen connections between areas of the brain involved in processing emotion and language.”
- CNN October 27, 2010
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences November 9, 2010; 107(45):19549-54
Dr. Mercola’s Comments:
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Light has a major impact on your health, influencing your vitamin D status, mood, weight, and even your risk of cancer. But now research is showing that different colors of light impact your body in different ways.
Emerging as one of the key players in your body’s ability to process emotions is blue light, which researchers suggest may help stave off Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or the winter blues.
Why You Might Feel Down in the Winter Months
The short days and long nights of fall and winter can trigger feelings of depression, lethargy, fatigue and other problems. About 20 percent of Americans are affected each winter, suffering from the blues and, in some cases, more serious depression as sunlight grows scarce.
Symptoms may include:
- Extreme fatigue
- Getting too much sleep
- Difficulty concentrating
- Cravings for sugary/starchy foods
- Weight gain
In the more serious SAD, you may also experience tension, inability to tolerate stress, decreased interest in sex and physical contact, and a loss of self-esteem. But what differentiates SAD from regular depression is that a full remission occurs in the spring and summer months.
The fact that SAD and the winter blues occur when the days begin to darken and sunlight is at a minimum is not a coincidence. This occurs because you simply are not getting enough exposure to natural light and as a result your mood and physical health will suffer.
More specifically, your serotonin levels (the hormone typically associated with elevating your mood) rise when you’re exposed to bright light. You may have experienced this “high” feeling after spending some time on a sunny beach, for example.
Similarly, the sleep hormone melatonin also rises and falls (inversely) with light and darkness. When it’s dark, your melatonin levels increase, which is why you may feel naturally tired when it begins to get dark outside (even when, in the heart of winter, this may be at only 4:00 p.m.).
Light and darkness also control your biological clock, or circadian rhythm, which impacts hormones that regulate your appetite and metabolism.
But the manipulation of hormone levels and your circadian rhythm are only two ways that light impacts your mood; it can also impact your emotions directly.
Blue Light May be Among the Best for Your Emotions
The latest study from researchers of the Light Research Program at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia has shown that blue light strengthens and stimulates connections between areas of your brain that process emotion and language and it does so better than green light.
The researchers suspect that blue light may, in turn, help people to better handle emotional challenges and regulate mood over time.
Blue light may be even more effective than the bright white light currently used in light boxes to treat SAD and other forms of depression. As CNN reported, a 2006 study found that blue light also worked better than red light in treating SAD symptoms.
Blue light is prevalent in outdoor light, so your body absorbs the most during the summer and much less in the winter. Because of this, the researchers suggested that adding blue light to indoor atmospheres, as opposed to the standard yellow lights typically used, may help boost mood and productivity year-round, and especially during the winter.
How to Use Light to Relieve Winter Blues
If you feel down in the winter months, first try brightening your environment naturally open your blinds and take a walk in the sun at lunchtime. Spend as much time outdoors in the sun as possible.
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If you have the resources, taking a vacation to a tropical or subtropical environment, or even relocating there for the winter, is also an excellent option, but this is unfortunately not a viable option for most.
The next step would be to address the lighting in your home and office environments. Most people use incandescent lighting in their homes, but this is not a high-quality light, nor one that is recommended if you suffer from the winter blues.
Ideally, you’ll want to use only high-quality full-spectrum light bulbs in your home and workspace. This is the type of lighting I personally use at home and in my office.
Full-spectrum lighting is one of the most cost-effective ways to treat the winter blues, and in my experience patients tend to feel a profound increase in energy and improvement in mood and sense of well-being quite quickly oftentimes within two to three days after exposure.
There’s some confusion on this issue, but currently full-spectrum light bulbs are only available as fluorescent bulbs. There are some LED’s available – and in time they will likely become the standard – but at the present time full-spectrum LED’s are simply not cost effective for the majority of us.
Please recognize that incandescent neodymium lights are claimed to be full spectrum but they aren’t and they don’t have the important blue wavelengths you need.
A full-spectrum light box can also be used during the winter months, and while most use white light you can find them with blue light instead. While the blue light is thought to be more effective at relieving SAD symptoms, there is some research that shows blue light may have a slightly greater risk of harming your eyes, so avoid looking directly at the light source (with either a blue or white light box).
You can actually get many of the same benefits of a light box by replacing the regular light bulbs in your home and office with full-spectrum lighting. I can honestly say that these lights have provided an enormous boost in my ability to tolerate the often-gloomy days where I live near Chicago.
Full-spectrum lights and blue light are not a replacement for real sunlight, but they are the next best thing when it’s grey and cloudy, or when it’s too cold to spend time outdoors.
Three More Tips for Beating the Winter Blues
Light is a major factor in overcoming SAD, but you can also help boost your mood naturally during the dark, cold winter by:
- Exercising: Regular physical activity works better than antidepressant drugs to improve your mood. In fact, it's one of the most powerful strategies you can take to prevent and treat depression and boost your mood.
- Going to sleep early. You were designed to go to sleep when the sun sets and wake up when the sun rises. If you stray too far from this biological pattern you will disrupt delicate hormonal cycles in your body. In the winter, this may mean that you'll want to go to sleep a couple of hours earlier than in the summer.
- Avoiding sugar and increasing high-quality animal-based omega-3 fats. Your brain consists of about 60 percent fat, DHA specifically, so you need a constant input of essential omega-3 fats like krill oil for your brain to work properly.
In fact, one study showed that people with lower blood levels of omega-3s were more likely to have symptoms of depression and a more negative outlook while those with higher blood levels demonstrated the opposite emotional states.
Sugar (including high-fructose corn syrup in soda) also has a seriously detrimental impact on your brain function. There’s a great book on this subject, The Sugar Blues written by William Dufty more than 30 years ago, that delves into this topic in great detail.
Last but certainly not least, the lack of sunlight during the winter months will also take a toll on your vitamin D levels, and vitamin D deficiency is also linked to depression.
So in addition to installing full-spectrum lighting and using the tips above, I can’t stress enough, especially during the dark, cold days of winter, how vitally important it is for you to keep on top of your vitamin D intake.