Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Light Up Your Life




              Light Up Your Life... for Christmas and the Rest of your Life


Depression? Seasonal affective depression? Light cravings?  I'm sure you've noticed the difference in the amount and quality of sunlight we experience during the fall, winter and early spring months: at least half of the year every year!  Emily Dickinson wrote, "There's a certain slant of light, On winter afternoons, That oppresses." We notice and complain about dark, cloudy, cold days and find pleasure stringing our Christmas lights and dreaming of warmth and happiness. Too often, however, we have become insensitive to the major changes in energy and mood that we experience during this part of the year. We may have become resigned to living in dim light and relative melancholy, or we may artificially pump ourselves up, short-term, with stimulants, sugar, caffeine and alcohol.  We may hibernate in front of the TV or under the covers. None of these accomplish any lasting positive changes and in fact often cause insulin crashes, obesity and multiple other health problems as well as stress, irritability, anger, anxiety and depression. My message has always been that we can be positive and proactive and achieve happiness. But how do we do this during these dreary months? How do we counter depression during the rest of the year? I found some very interesting information in my research for this article which I will share with you.


Technological and other advances of modern life have provided dramatic changes in convenience and comfort in all phases of our lives. However, I have become increasingly aware of the psychological and physical problems accruing from changes which ignore the natural order and biological rhythms of the human mind and body. Increasingly we find ourselves cut off from natural forces such as sunlight which sustain the earth as well as all life on the earth. The prevalence of depression in modern life continues to increase, not just seasonal depression which is itself very problematic during half of the year. Our lives spent inside buildings and automobiles, under artificial light, with little time outside in sunlight and in nature is actually one of the major causes of depression as well as other mood disorders and diseases.


My research has highlighted the many ways in which natural sunlight promotes health, happiness and longevity as well as the many problems caused by the wrong kinds of artificial lighting.  These effects are more striking during the dark months but actually occur throughout the year. Our experiences during warm sunlit days as well as phrases of speech recognize the powerful positive effects of sunlight. Our world revolves around our "solar system", our love partners "light up" our lives, the sun has "healing rays" and knowledge gives light to the world. The Bible recognized the primacy of light when the first act of God was to create light for the world.  From the beginning of time mankind worshiped the sun, and poets and philosophers continue to sing the praises of sunlight.  The converse is true. We want to "live in the light" and avoid "the dark night of the soul." 


Research has shown multiple benefits of sunlight including increases in energy and positive mood, boosting immunity and preventing disease, enhancing mental awareness, concentration and productivity, even increasing learning ability and intelligence. Your pets and plants need sunlight as much as you do!   Artificial lights can cause deficits and deficiencies in these natural processes, described as "malillumination" by Dr. John Ott. Ott had turned his lifelong interest in time-lapse photography into pioneering investigations into the ecology of light. His carefully controlled studies researched the damaging effects of improper lighting on plants and animals as well as children in classrooms, demonstrating deadly effects on plants, markedly decreased lifespans in animals, and behavior and learning problems in students. Interestingly enough, Ott's study found that children in rooms with full-spectrum lighting developed one third the number of cavities in their teeth as children in classrooms with standard fluorescent lights. Ott was concerned about society’s overprotective attitude toward ultraviolet rays. As he stated, "Ordinary eyeglasses, windows in homes and automobile windshields screen from the eyes most of the ultraviolet which reaches us in natural sunlight. And depriving the human of that ultraviolet can become a strong obstacle to improving health." He reported that Obrig Laboratories in Hong Kong installed full spectrum lighting and ultraviolet-transmitting windowpanes, finding that none of their 100 employees were ill during the entire Hong Kong flu epidemic of 1968-69. (John Ott, Sc.D., Consumer Health, February, 1983.)


Access to sufficient light is also influenced by the intensity of the lighting available in buildings. While outdoor lighting may have 50,000 to 100,000 lux, indoor lighting levels will be dramatically less, perhaps 500 lux.  Obviously the amount as well as the type of light are both important variables in our buildings and environs.


I found some statistics which indicate that our region does experience difficulties in accessing dependable sunlight even in the brighter parts of the year.  The Triangle area only accesses 58% of possible sunshine with the number of cloudy days averaging 13 per month! (Compare this to, Seattle, known to be dark and rainy, accessing 43% of possible sunlight and 16 cloudy days per month. The difference is less dramatic than I thought.)  Our winter darkness is real, however. The difference between the summer and winter solstice in June and December is five hours of daylight!


While we are discussing statistics, I want to provide you information about the influence of light and time of year on vitamin D. One of the major positive effects of sunlight is on our production of vitamin D through exposure to daylight. I was able to calculate approximate effects of sunlight in our area on the production of vitamin D. Assuming noon-time exposure, a maintenance level of vitamin D could be obtained June 21 at 4 minutes of exposure on a cloudless day and 21 minutes on an overcast day. On December 21, 38 minutes would be required on a cloudless day and 3 hours 24 minutes on an overcast day. Fortunately, many of the benefits of vitamin D can be obtained through supplementation with vitamin D 3 which is the form of the vitamin manufactured by our bodies.


The influence of sunlight is just a part of our light-dark circadian cycle.  The use of artificial lights has also created problems for our lives at night when we are overexposed to inside lighting.  Our hormones become imbalanced when lighting cycles interfere with our biorhythms. Serotonin, the brain hormone associated with mood elevation, increases or decreases with exposure to bright light. Our bodies naturally create melatonin during the dark periods of night, and melatonin facilitates peaceful sleep and restoration of energy and positive mood for the next day.  Melatonin then decreases with dawn, enabling us to wake up alert and ready for the day.  Artificial lights at night suppress melatonin, interfering with sleep, and dark days increase melatonin during times when we should be fully awake and energetic.  Studies of individuals with insomnia find insufficient melatonin at night, and people who experience seasonal affective depression have increased levels of melatonin in the body during the daytime. It is therefore obvious that solutions to depression, especially winter depression, must look at the influence of light throughout the entire daily cycle.


The first approach to this problem should be to maximize the effect of natural light upon our lives. Exposure to nature has energizing and life-giving effects in addition to the benefits of sunlight. Windows, eyeglasses, sunglasses and sunscreens do limit the effects of sunlight, often more than required for safety. The beneficial effects of sunlight can be enjoyed with attention to timing and length of exposure. Midday sun produces vitamin D. Obviously the skin must be protected from over exposure during this period of time. Recent data suggests that too much UVA light relative to UVB places us at greater risk for skin cancer. UVB light is available at midday and UVA daylight throughout the day. Interestingly enough, science has found that melanoma victims are likely to live longer if they have higher vitamin D levels or a history of greater sun exposure. The negative effect of sun on melanoma appears to be due to intense short-term over exposures.


Unfortunately, however, most of our time must be spent indoors. The first solution to this dilemma will be to replace some or all of your lighting with full-spectrum light bulbs. Although full spectrum lighting can be expensive, you can experiment with replacing some of your lights and judging the effects. I can attest to the energy and mood altering aspects of these replacements. I want to tell you about some of the information I discovered in making these replacements. Although there are definite criteria for full spectrum lights, there are no such marketing criteria.  Full spectrum light bulbs must meet several specifications. The Correlated Color Temperature scale describes sunlight temperature in degrees Kelvin. This K rating describes the color appearance of the light source and the light emitted from the source. Summer sunlight on a clear day has a K rating of 5500. The other rating is the Color Rendering Index which describes how well the light demonstrates colors in objects, with a CRI rating of 100 being the best color rendering light. The full spectrum light bulb also must contain a full spectrum of color including ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths as found in sunlight.  Incandescent lights cannot be full spectrum lights, but instead are coated with neodymium which may deliver a more pleasing light but do not confer the same health benefits.  In choosing full spectrum lights, you also must note that many of these lights cannot be used with dimmers, although there are some specialty dimmer-ready lights available. You should also note that the wattage ratings are different than incandescent bulbs. You will need to order 15 watt or 20 watt bulbs which are equivalent to the 65 and 100 watt bulbs you are used to using.


Special light boxes are also available to assist with winter blues, depression and seasonal affective depression.  These light boxes provide full spectrum lighting and sometimes include blue lighting to simulate the predominant lighting of spring mornings. Research has established a level of 10,000 lux for light therapy. Generally it is helpful to sit in front of a light box for a specified period of time in the morning to provide your eyes with the energizing and mood elevating effects of early light. As in the case of full spectrum lighting, you must be careful to pick a light box with true full spectrum lighting. Be sure to check the K and CRI levels when you order a light box. It is also important to modify your distance from the light and the amount of time spent in front of the light. The light box is usually set at an angle so that you can read or eat in front of the light box without looking directly at the light. Most individuals experience no negative consequence from light box use, although individuals with light sensitivities or bipolar disorders may experience irritability or excitability with overexposure. Professional consultation is advised in selecting the light box and developing your plan to utilize this assistance in your life.


Other interventions are necessary to deal with the proliferation of excessive night lighting during the period of time when the body is used to sleep. With the onset of dusk, no matter the clock time, the increase in melatonin is signaled by the tired feeling which begins to creep in with increasing darkness. However, we are used to extending the day with artificial light and electronic stimulation from TV, computers and other gadgets.  Special photonic protective eyewear is available to assist you to function with light during this time and also increase melatonin production for sleep purposes. These glasses filter out the blue component of white light while maintaining visual acuity and allowing you to read or work in the evening. With large lenses and frames shaped to reduce peripheral light, you may look like an aviator but you will also be preserving and protecting your health.


Negative air ionization and dawn simulation systems are also discussed as solutions to seasonal and non-seasonal depressions. Ionizers are small machines which emit the negative ions which are removed by heating and air conditioning systems inside buildings. Negative ions are thought to increase the flow of oxygen to the brain resulting in higher alertness and mental energy and increase the production of serotonin for mood elevation as well as combat air pollution and allergies. You've experienced the positive effects of negative ions around waterfalls and surf at the beach as well as immediately after spring thunderstorms. Negative ionizers can be used flexibly for multiple purposes. In fact I utilize a small ionizer machine in my office to increase the positive atmosphere. Negative ions can be used in the treatment of seasonal depression as long as the emission is high-density. One way to ensure this is using a grounded wrist strap attached to the ionizer for 30 to 60 minutes. Dawn simulators allow the eye to gradually experience the onset of dawn while you remain in bed. Commercially available dawn simulation clocks are interesting but ineffective for the treatment of these issues for many reasons including the fact that the lighting emission does not match the light distribution necessary to stimulate the eyes. There are only a few therapeutic models of dawn simulators available for use.


The take-away message from this article is to highlight the power of sunlight in promoting health and well-being. When we cannot always enjoy the benefits of natural light, full spectrum lighting is a very effective intervention which we all can use to optimize our lives. As an example of the power of light in ameliorating seasonal as well as non-seasonal depression, research has shown that one week of treatment with a lightbox provided as much improvement as 4-16 weeks of treatment with anti-depressant drugs! 


Other kinds of physically based interventions treat depression and affective disorders in order to increase positive mood and energy.  Exercise is a prime example.  Promising interventions can be drawn from the emerging field which is called energy psychology or energy medicine. I’ve found simple techniques such as the "three thumps" increase energy in the morning. (The website   contains information about energy enhancing techniques.) I've also written about the stimulating effects of hemi-sync CDs which affect beta brain waves. More cognitively-based techniques such as psychotherapy, Psych-K and affective transmutation utilize conscious and subconscious modalities to bring about positive effects in these areas.


An earlier article on this website, "Beating the Winter Slump" discusses seasonal affective disorder. A reference in this area is "Light Medicine of the Future" by Jacob Lieberman, Bear & Company, 1991. A provocative study can be found in the book "Lights Out" by T S. Wiley, Pocket Books, 2000.  A reference for professionals is "Chronotherapeutics for Affective Disorders," Wirz-Justice, Benedetti and Terman, Karger, 2009.  I would of course be happy to schedule time with you to help you develop a light/energy program to meet your needs.


I hope in reading this article you have had the chance to contemplate the importance of natural energy in sunlight and in all aspects of our lives, reaching even to the inner core of our being, our souls.   As stated in a well-known proverb, "The eyes are the window to the soul."  John Greenleaf Whittier added, "The windows of my soul, I throw wide open to the sun."   Remember to open up your souls to this wondrous and powerful experience, sunlight!