issues and experts

Preventing the winter blues: how Canadians can brighten their frosty moods

January 19, 2020
Print

CONTACT:
Myriam Juda, Department of Psychology, 604.347.9204; mjuda@sfu.ca
Braden McMillan, Communications and Marketing, 236.880.3459; bradenm@sfu.ca

The third Monday of January is often referred to as Blue Monday – unofficially the most depressing day of the year. But what is it about this time of year that makes people feel so gloomy and what can be done to address the problem? SFU adjunct professor Myriam Juda is available to talk about how the lack of light is a leading culprit behind poor moods and a lack of energy in the winter months and what Canadians can do to stop feeling so down.

Background:

According to Juda, light influences our moods and our circadian clocks, affecting not just our vision but our physiology too. Despite its importance, most Canadians do not receive sufficient daylight exposure – a problem exacerbated during winter months and contributing to the ‘winter blues.’

Shorter days and more time spent indoors are the major culprits. “Indoor lighting levels - generally below 400 lux (a measurement of the amount of light) - are extremely low in intensity, compared to outdoor light levels, which are 1,000 lux even on a very overcast day and go up to 100,000 lux in bright sunlight,” says Juda. “When we don’t get enough daylight, our circadian clock drifts later, we become night owls and then many find it increasingly difficult to wake up when our alarm clocks ring in the morning. Consequently, we are sleep deprived, fatigued and left feeling a bit miserable.” 

Light also has direct effects on mood-regulating regions in the brain. Light impacts the circadian clock and our mood through direct nerve connections between our eyes and the brain, Juda explains. This connection means that, for light to yield its positive effects, it must be absorbed through the eyes (the tanning salon won’t work).

Although many people feel low in mood and energy in the winter months, some will experience more severe symptoms of clinical depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) is a type of depression that appears during late fall and winter and goes away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. Light therapy is an effective treatment for SAD; however, Juda advises to consult your doctor if you suspect you have this condition.

Three tips for healthy light hygiene:

  • Go outside, especially in the morning. 
    Seek as much natural daylight as possible (bike to work, walk your kids to school etc.). Even on a cloudy and rainy day, the brightness from outdoor light far exceeds ordinary home lighting. Morning light is especially important to reset the clock and to improve mood. If your time is limited, choose outdoor activities in the morning rather than later in the day.
  • If it’s dark outside when you get to work, consider getting a light therapy box (or glasses).
    Choose a CSA approved light box that is 10,000 lux at a comfortable distance (14-18 inches) from the eyes. Depending on the person, 15-60 minutes of morning light therapy should suffice, ideally within the first two hours after waking up.
  • Dim your lights at night. 
    While light is beneficial during the day, it has disruptive effects on your body at night. In particular, blue light interferes with circadian rhythms and melatonin secretion. Use dim, warm lights at night, starting three hours before going to bed to help adjust to earlier sleep. Exposure to screens should also be limited three hours before sleep, including smartphones, tablets, laptops and close-range TVs. Software that blocks blue light emitted from screens at night can be helpful.

Contact:
Myriam Juda, adjunct professor, Department of Psychology, 604.347.9204; mjuda@sfu.ca