A Happy Light Might Be Your Best Friend During Dark Days with MS

Many people with MS may be struggling at this time of year. It could be due to external influences. Weather can be extreme and keep us indoors. This may lead to sedentary living or make us feel glum without access to sunlight and fresh air.

Seasonal struggles and MS winter symptoms

It’s the beginning of flu season as well. That means we might also be stuck indoors under self-quarantine. Let’s face it, even if we get the flu vaccine, many in our community don’t, and that puts us at risk.

Finally, the stress of the holidays, as well as the post-holiday slump, can trigger pseudo-exacerbations, full-blown relapses, and more “normal” problems like seasonal depression, economic anxiety, grief over lost loved ones, and relationship troubles.

Multiple sclerosis and vitamin D

While there’s no simple solution for these problems, there are small efforts we can make to rise above the pain, stress, and doldrums of December. One of them is to reconsider our vitamin D intake.

Observational studies show that a deficiency in vitamin D is a modifiable risk factor for MS. Any deficiency you might have should be treated.

The benefits of vitamin D

Vitamin D is generally important for absorbing calcium via the stomach and for assisting in the function of calcium throughout the body. It’s also a critical partner in the body’s regulation of the immune and neuromuscular systems.

This explains why vitamin D levels should be kept within a normal range for those with MS. So much of our disease course depends on the stability of both of these systems.

Vitamin D deficiencies

Also worth mentioning: stable vitamin D levels are important for mood regulation. Deficiencies in vitamin D are linked to increases in winter depression (SAD).

Our bodies generate vitamin D, but only after sufficient exposure to sunlight. This is a problem for people who live in northern climates where natural sunlight is dim. Ironically, it's also a problem for people in hot, sunny climates, where living takes place mostly indoors.

One popular way to rectify this situation is through dietary consumption of foods high in vitamin D or via vitamin D supplements.

What is a happy light?

The other way is to simply expose yourself to more natural light. But that can be hard to do when the weather is difficult or you can’t leave the home due to mobility issues. That’s where a “happy light” can come in handy.

A “happy light” references a light therapy device used to treat seasonal depression (or seasonal affective disorder, SAD). It’s composed of full-spectrum light that measures in at 10,000 lux. This amount mimics the measure of light one might experience when strolling outside on a sunny day.

Happy lights come in all shapes and sizes. Some look like plain white smartphones, while others look like lightboxes or have distinct cylindrical or round shapes. You can even find travel-sized happy lights. Some can also be plugged into the USB on your laptop.

How to use a happy light

Using a happy light is fairly simple.* Turn it on and sit within 20 to 24 inches of it for about 20 minutes a day. That’s it. You don’t need to (and shouldn't) look directly at it. The benefit comes from light exposure received by photoreceptors in both the eyes and the skin. Some lamps have high-bright and low-bright settings. If the high setting is too bright, opt for the low setting.

Some people may experience a slight headache while using it for the first few times; that’s normal and will fade in short order. Over time, the happy light user will usually notice a couple of benefits: a drop in daytime fatigue (happy lights stimulate the pineal gland and slow down melatonin production which can leave us feeling sleepy) and an elevation in daytime mood.

Happy light benefits

However, the best benefit comes in something less obvious but no less important to the well being of anyone with MS: stable levels of vitamin D. When you have a normal amount of vitamin D in your bloodstream, the result is better function for both the immune and musculoskeletal systems. That, in turn, can lead to fewer relapses or exacerbations, less pain, and more energy during the day.

If you're interested in participating in clinical trials phototherapy for treating MS symptoms, check out this Boston-based research study: Light Therapy as Treatment for Fatigue in Multiple Sclerosis. They are recruiting participants with relapsing-remitting MS.

What about vitamin D supplements?

These are enormously popular among people with MS, and for good reason: a lot of research suggests that higher vitamin D levels can correlate to fewer relapses and a slower progression of the disease. Yet, other recent research suggests vitamin D isn’t quite a wonder drug and may lead to adverse side effects when taken in mega doses. This is due to an unhealthy overload of calcium in the bloodstream.

Therein lies the problem: there’s no real consensus on how much vitamin D to take, or what defines vitamin D deficiency even in healthy people, or whether age is also a factor in the use of vitamin D to ward off disability. Too much vitamin D can lead to adverse effects such as nausea, vomiting, weakness, frequent urination, kidney stones, and exacerbation of bone problems.

Natural vitamin D

If you want to ensure you have adequate vitamin D, and that you are receiving safe amounts, there are two ways to do so: either by way of diet or light therapy.

Foods that are high in vitamin D include fortified products (milk, cereal, orange juice), egg yolks, and fatty cold-water fish.

But even easier is natural sunlight, which can be had by enjoying a 20-minute stroll (or roll) in the morning, even on an overcast day. Or, in inclement weather, a “happy light” with your morning coffee can do the trick.

*Please note that people with bipolar disorder should avoid light therapy of any kind except when guided by their psychiatrist, as light therapy can set off a manic period.

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