Natural approaches to combating the winter blues

Here in the UK many of us will be acutely aware that the days are already noticeably shorter. One of the risks associated with shorter days is lowered mood or full-blown ‘seasonal affective disorder’ (SAD – also known as the ‘winter blues’. For sure, some people are more susceptible to this than others. For those who can feel ‘down in the dumps’ in the winter, I suggest be wary of the potential impact of light (or lack of it) on mood.

The issue here is that many of us, in the depths of winter, can go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. So, if we don’t get out at lunchtime, we run the risk of getting no sunlight exposure in the day at all. This, generally, is not a good state of affairs. So, one simple strategy for helping combat SAD or more muted versions of this condition is to make a commitment to getting out at lunchtime for half an hour or so. Even on the dull day the  light intensity outside generally far exceeds anything you’re going to find in an office. Plus, the spectrum of the light coming from the sun is generally more conducive to having benefits for mood and wellbeing.

A year ago, almost to the day, I wrote a blog post about evidence which suggests that the ‘blue’ part of the spectrum is most effective in terms of combating SAD. This morning, I thought I’d see if the science has moved on regarding the management of SAD, and came across a review article which was published earlier this year in the Drugs and Therapeutics Bulletin [1].

One of the treatments assessed by this review was, inevitably, light therapy. The review quotes a systematic review of 8 controlled trials lasting 7-42 days that found positive results across the board [2]. It also cited another review [3] which found that bright light therapy offered considerable benefits compared to no light, but no statistically significant benefits compared to ‘control’ treatments such as exposure to sham light boxes or dim red light. The suggestion from this review here is that bright light therapy may ‘work’ primarily through the placebo effect. As I’ve stated before, if this is the case, then I don’t very much care (and neither, generally, do my patients).

However, it is possible that any real effect was not discerned as a result factors such as poor study design, inappropriate use of controls, and small participant numbers.

In short, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend that individuals who get SAD or something similar in the winter apply some light therapy from about now and right through to well into the spring. I, myself, will be taking my own advice, for what it’s worth.

One of the reasons for writing about this review is that it mentions a type of natural treatment for SAD that I was not previously aware – negative ion generators. Negative ions are found more abundantly in the air, for instance, after a storm, in humid, plant-rich environments and by the sea. Negative ions are believed by some to have benefits on mood and wellbeing. Positive ions, on the other hand, have the reverse effect and are found abundantly in heated and air-conditioned internal environments.

In one study [4], individuals with SAD were subjected to generators which gave off high (2.7 x 106 ions/cm3) or low (104 ions/cm3) levels of negative ions. 58 per cent of those exposed to higher levels of negative ions achieved remission of their SAD, compared to 15 per cent in the other group (the result was statistically significant).

One other natural approach worth trying concerns vitamin D. For more about this, see this post.

References:

1. Management of seasonal affective disorder DTB 2009;47:128-132

2. Golden RN, et al. The efficacy of light therapy in the treatment of mood disorders: a review and meta-analysis of the evidence. Am J Psych 2005;162:656-62

3. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Depression in adults (update) 2009

4. Terman M, et al. Treatment of seasonal affective disorder with a high-output negative ionizer. J Altern Complement Med 1995;1:87-92

7 Responses to Natural approaches to combating the winter blues

  1. Reijo Laatikainen 13 October 2010 at 9:29 am #

    Here in Nordic countries short days are even bigger challenge. Many Finns have found help in light therapy. It’s very common to have one of these special lamps on the office desk and use it for 30-45 minutes every morning. Omega-3 fats on top of vitamin D might also help a bit. And regular physical activity.

  2. John Briffa 13 October 2010 at 10:24 am #

    Thanks Reijo
    ‘Yes’ to both omega-3 and exercise for additional support here.

  3. Margaret Wilde 13 October 2010 at 7:34 pm #

    I fully agree about the Vitamin D and about the physical activity enhancing mood.

    I tried one of the negative ion generating devices years ago and discerned no effect whatsoever.

  4. John Briffa 13 October 2010 at 7:59 pm #

    Margaret

    I tried one of the negative ion generating devices years ago and discerned no effect whatsoever.

    This may be because negative ions have not particular value for you, but also might have something to do with the amount of negative ions the device generated.

  5. Margaret Wilde 13 October 2010 at 10:26 pm #

    Thank you, John. Your suggestion that it may be something to do with the amount of negative ions the device generated sounds quite likely as I was using it in a larger than average room.

  6. Adrian Gray 14 October 2012 at 8:35 pm #

    In the 1940s my parents had an ultraviolet sun lamp (Hanovia) and as children we were exposed to this twice a week in winter. This was a powerful lamp and overexposure resulted in sunburn. Looking back I question the safety of this treatment but none of us suffered any ill effects and we all felt better and had a healthy appearance. Was this the same wavelength of light to which you are referring?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Why you don’t need to be ‘SAD’ to benefit from light exposure - 18 March 2011

    [...] I mentioned this to her and she told me her sister had remarked that all she needed was ‘a holiday somewhere sunny in the winter.’ I remarked that perhaps her sister had a point. My patient remarked, quite rightly, that this is not always practical. However, getting more light in the winter doesn’t necessarily mean relocating to somewhere sunny. It could mean ‘buying in’ light in the form of a sunlight-simulating device. In 2009 I wrote about this and also quoted some evidence which suggests the light from the blue part of the visual spectrum appears to be most important for mood maintenance. For a more general review of some natural approaches that may combat SAD, see here. [...]

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