winter sunset

A Bright Idea to Beat the Winter Blues

Winter is rough, even for those without seasonal affective disorder. A few Toronto libraries are offering visitors the perfect antidote: light.


Has winter got you feeling down? The solution might be at your local library.

In early February, two branches of the Toronto Public Library started offering access to special lamps for light therapy to treat seasonal depression. They are the most recent in a string of other Canadian libraries to start offering the service.

According to Dr. Robert Levitan, senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, about 2-5% of Canadians will suffer from a severe, clinical form of seasonal depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). A much larger percentage of the population (10-15%) will suffer from mild SAD and an even larger percentage (25-35%) get the “winter blues”.

At least one of the underlying factors leading to SAD seems to be a lack of exposure to natural light. On the winter solstice, Toronto had eight hours and 55 minutes of daylight this year, Edmonton had seven hours and 27 minutes, and Whitehorse had just five hours and 37 minutes. And that’s just daylight! According to Environment Canada, Toronto had fewer than 50 hours of sunlight in all of January this year.

Insufficient levels of light, especially early in the morning, disrupt the body’s circadian or daily rhythms, leading to a failure to secrete hormones like melatonin that help us feel awake. Hence that feeling of lethargy that often accompanies dark winter days.

Doctors have found that exposure to a bright light for 30 minutes a day, especially soon after waking, could be enough to combat the problem. Special light therapy lamps called lightboxes give off about 10,000 lux (a measure of light intensity) while typical indoor lighting is just 500 lux. Even sufferers of non-seasonal depression have shown positive results from light therapy.

Unfortunately, a lightbox like this for home use can be expensive and getting treated at a hospital can be stressful. But what better place to spend 30 minutes than sitting at the library with a good book?

If you try the lamps, which are available at the Brentwood and Malvern libraries, be sure to give feedback. The data will be used to determine whether the service should remain or expand.

Hopefully, this bright idea will continue to catch on in other locations.

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Malgosia Pakulska is a freelance science writer, speaker, and blogger. She completed her PhD in Professor Molly Shoichet’s lab studying drug delivery systems for spinal cord regeneration after injury. She is still passionate about research and wants to share that excitement with the public. When she is not in the lab, she is experimenting in the kitchen and blogging about it at Smart Cookie Bakes.