Daylight savings time starts this weekend. Darker, cloudier Pittsburgh days are ahead. Do you get down occasionally during these long winter months? How do people cope? And why do we sometimes feel down when the days are shorter? If this sounds like you, keep reading to see how light therapy could brighten up your life!
The ‘winter blues’
Researchers have proposed several theories for why we may feel down during the winter months. These include:
- Changes in our sleep or circadian rhythm: If our bodies have less sunlight exposure, our sleep patterns can change. For some people, this change can lead to mood shifts.
- Serotonin: Less sunlight exposure can also cause a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that helps regulate our moods.
- Melatonin: A small gland in the brain releases this hormone at night. Melatonin helps control the sleep-wake cycle. Less sunlight exposure can affect the amount released by our brain which leads to sleep and mood changes.
Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD
More than just the blues, SAD is a persistent feeling of sadness on most days. SAD can even occur during the spring and summer months instead of the fall and winter!
Symptoms of fall and winter SAD include:
- Sleeping too much
- Changes in appetite and overeating
If you feel down most days, don’t have the motivation to do things, or have any thoughts of self-harm, contact your doctor right away.
Ways to beat the blues
You can do several things to help improve your mood during the winter.
- Exercise: Keeping active is a natural mood enhancer. Try to set aside 30 – 60 minutes each day to exercise.
- Keep a regular sleep schedule: Try to get to sleep and wake up within about 60 minutes of each sleep interval every day. A regular sleep cycle can help improve your mood.
- Brighten your life: Open curtains during the day or go for a brief walk around lunch even if it’s cold outside. Outdoor light stimulates chemicals in the brain to improve your well-being.
Another way to beat the blues and treat SAD is light therapy using a “light box.”
These boxes should meet several safety and treatment standards:
- They should produce 10,000 ‘lux’ units of light in order to be effective
- They should filter out most UV light to prevent skin or eye damage
Light therapy is most useful if it’s done in the first few hours after awakening in the morning but can benefit you anytime.
How to use the light box
Light boxes should:
- Be 16 to 24 inches away from the side of your face
- Used for about 20 – 30 minutes
Who should be careful when using light therapy:
- Anyone with an eye condition like glaucoma, cataracts or changes due to diabetes. Check with your eye doctor first
- Other mental conditions like bipolar disease
The Recovery Lounge at the Pittsburgh Fitness Project will have light boxes available to help with the winter blues. Sign up for a free day pass to try out our infrared saunas, compression therapy, massage chairs, and light boxes!