Michael Terman PhD, and Ian McMahan PhD, excerpted from Reset Your Inner Clock: The Drug-free Way to Your Best-Ever Sleep, Mood, and Energy

Andrea M, 23, was a graduate student at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. A couple of years earlier, while she was still an undergraduate there, she took part in a clinical trial testing the effects of negative air ions on SAD. The trial was carried out by Professor Randy Flory as part of a long-term research program on treatments for SAD.

“There was a survey for signs of SAD offered to everyone on campus,” Andrea explains. “And I decided to take it. I’m originally from up North, and I always had trouble in the winter. It was a problem getting up in the morning — I had no energy. I was not motivated to do anything. It was a struggle to study, do homework.

“I knew I hated winter back in high school or middle school,” she continues. “I moved down to Virginia because I was tired of it. It was hard to exercise. I’m very active, but I had no energy to exercise. The winter was dark and dreary. I was very apathetic. Everything was ‘Oh, yeah, well…’ I kept putting things off, you know, like stuff around the house.”

Prof. Flory asked Andrea to take part in the study after reviewing her depression score and making sure she was a willing participant. “Every morning, the other subjects and I would come in for either a half hour or hour session with the ionizer. We were not told which group we were in—experimental or control. You had to be within two feet of the ionizer and sit there for the amount of time you were assigned. You could read, do anything you wanted, but you couldn’t use anything that plugs in.”

“I had to be there at 6 or 7 in the morning,” she recalls. “So in the month of January it was torture getting out of bed. While you’re sitting in there, I’d get really sleepy. But after a week or so, I was getting up before the alarm. That was just crazy. After the session, I had this energy when I went back. I didn’t feel like sleeping in class. I was taking an environmental studies class, and we went out hiking in January. And I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I fell in love with hiking in January!”

Once the study ended, Andrea stopped using a negative air ion generator, until last winter. “I don’t know why last winter was really so tough,” she says. “I had a lot of energy trouble. I was also miserable at my job. It was probably a combination of the winter and the stress. And I had no ionizer! So I broke down and got one. I’m a poor graduate student. I wouldn’t have spent $150-$200 on it if I didn’t think it worked. I felt I had really seen the results. I use it in the winter all the time, but not as much in the summer. It depends on if I feel I need it.”

Asked if she expects to go on using the ion generator for the rest of her life, Andrea replies, “I don’t see how I wouldn’t use it as I go on — it works! SAD drives me crazy. Seven or eight months a year, I’m a go-getter. I’m doing what I want, I’m active, and then I hit a brick wall. I have the feeling that I know I should do this or that, but I just want to take a nap. I lack motivation to do a lot of daily things: clean, and study. I know I have to get out, get fresh air, get exercise. It holds me back.

“I always thought I had SAD,” she concludes. “I wanted to be in the study because I thought it was time to find out if I really had it. When I told my mom and dad, they were like “What?!!!” It seemed completely crazy and silly to them. But you have to be open-minded — because now they see that it works.”

Andrea achieved a full antidepressant effect with ion therapy, just like many others who have participated in clinical trials.  Still others have received significant but partial benefit, with some residual symptoms.  (Similarly, antidepressant drugs and light therapy may also provide partial benefit short of a full response.) When the ionizer works, but doesn’t achieve a full effect, combination treatments — ions + light, ions + meds, or even ions + light + meds — may do the trick. Just three cautions:

  • If you are adding light therapy to ion therapy, don’t use them at the same time! The light box — or any electrical device placed close to the ionizer — would attract ions, lowering the level you receive. For example, if you are using light therapy in the morning, after waking up, you can use the ionizer later in the day.  Even easier, you can place the ionizer close to your bed, connect it to a 24-hour timer, and set the timer for 90 minutes of operation before wake-up time. This bedroom method saves reserving an extra 30 minutes during the day for a sit-down ion treatment session.
  • When adding treatments together, you may need lower doses than when you use them separately. For example, 90 minutes of ion treatment + 15 minutes of light therapy may do the trick, while you might need 30 minutes of light therapy if used alone.
  • If you want to add ion treatment to a prescribed antidepressant drug, be sure to discuss this with your doctor. It may be possible, or even necessary, to lower the drug dose after adding ion treatment, since both will contribute to the antidepressant effect.