Light Up the Winter Blues

"The winter person has little energy and finds it difficult to cope with everyday tasks. As days grow longer in March and April, the energetic person reappears."


On the Health Services floor of the Norco building at Boise State University is a room labeled "Oasis." The room is smaller than most faculty offices (which is saying a lot), and contains a large, comfy chair, a computer screen depicting a beach scene and a very bright lamp.

The Oasis room is a free service offered to students and staff to help them destress and treat the gloom that may show up in the winter months. The bright lamp is a "happy light," a full-spectrum artificial light that mimics the sun, something Idahoans might start to miss during the winter. A lack of light dims moods as well.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines the cycle of winter moods as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Symptoms can range from mild "winter blues" to a seasonal pattern of clinical depression that interferes with normal function. People can experience low energy, oversleeping, changes in appetite and feelings of hopelessness. SAD is four times more common in women than in men, and often affects younger demographics more heavily.

The term "Seasonal Affective Disorder" was first coined in the 1980s by Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a psychiatrist who moved from South Africa to New York and noticed changes in his mood. He found that between 6 and 10 percent of the population living in northern latitudes has SAD, and between 15 and 25 percent have seasonal mood changes—the "winter blues."

In his 2005 book, Winter Blues, Rosenthal describes the problem and its ties to the lack of sunlight.

"The summer person is energetic, cheerful and productive," he writes. "But the winter person has little energy and finds it difficult to cope with everyday tasks. As days grow longer in March and April, the energetic person reappears."

While it's not fully understood, a key factor in SAD is the lack of sunlight.

"Hormonally, when we don't have regular contact with the sun, we have a decrease in melatonin and serotonin, melatonin being the hormone that helps you sleep and serotonin being the hormone that makes you feel good and decreases depressive symptoms," says Dr. Matt Niece, director of counseling services at Boise State. "Add that people are less likely to go out and do regular things that help with depression like walking, getting fresh air and socializing. We get isolated when the weather isn't nice."

Dr. Niece said that symptoms often present strongly in students who move to Boise from sunnier climates, such as California. Research also shows the importance of location. In an interview with Boise State Public Radio, Inger Persson, a clinical social worker at St. Alphonsus, said 1 percent of the people in southern California or Florida have SAD, but it's closer to 10 percent in northern regions like Washington State.

Rates of SAD increase linearly with latitude up to the 38th parallel, and there's a significant increase in prevalence along the western edge of a timezone. At 43.6 degrees north and only 50 miles from the Oregon border, Boise is in a sweet spot.

One of the first treatments Rosenthal researched was using artificial light therapy. He found that it can be as effective as taking antidepressant medications, but with fewer side effects. A 2006 study confirmed that finding, with a double-blind trial that compared bright-light therapy to the antidepressant Prozac and found that the two treatments were equally effective. In 2016, another study was published where 11 patients with SAD were treated with two weeks of light therapy and saw serotonin levels rise to summertime norms.

Dr. Rosenthal recommends those looking to try light therapy use about 10,000 lux for at least 30 minutes. A lux is a standard measure of illumination. For comparison, a typical household living room is around 50 lux, and office lighting is around 350 lux. An overcast day in Boise is about 1000 lux, and direct sunlight can measure up to 100,000 lux.

A 10,000-lux happy light are available on Amazon for around $45, and can be just the thing to brighten up the mood of an office. Use of a happy lamp must be consistent to be effective, and should be used until the springtime.

On a larger scale, Boise could take a hint from the town of Rjukan, Norway, which receives little to no sunlight between September and March. In 2013, the town spent 5 million kroner—more than $580,000—to build a series of large mirrors on nearby mountain that reflect the sun into the town square.

Meanwhile, at Boise State, the Oasis room can be used for up to 30 minutes at a time. Dr. Niece said he finds it surprising how popular the room is, although The Arbiter reports that the room was only used 217 times during the last school year.

Boise State also has a few happy lights in the library that can be checked out for use inside the building, but staff said they are rarely used.

The good news for the general public is that light therapy can be self-prescribed and has limited side effects. Not just any light will do, though—intensity is key, and morning exposure is considered the best, although any time is beneficial.