According to the US National Library of Medicine:
“Some people experience a serious mood change during the winter months, when there is less natural sunlight. This condition is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Not everyone with SAD has the same symptoms.”
This once-disregarded issue is finally being recognized as a real problem. In the US, between 1.4 to 9.7 percent of people suffer from seasonal affective disorder—and the further north you live, the more likely you are to experience it.
Symptoms may resemble mental burnout:
- Sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings.
- Feelings of guilt, hopelessness, or pessimism.
- Irritability or restlessness.
- Fatigue, oversleeping, or difficulty sleeping.
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, or making decisions.
- Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy.
There’s a big difference between seasonal depression and clinical depression.
If your depression only comes during certain months of the year, then it’s likely seasonal—and in that case, it may be treatable with light therapy and sunlight lamps. If your depression is more than just seasonal, consult one of these online resources for depression to get help.
How Does Light Therapy Work?
In general, animals go through a period of reduced activity during winter months. Humans can also experience a slowdown during the winter, because sunlight regulates our biological clocks and reduced sunlight availability leads to hormonal changes that affect sleep and mood. However, the exact cause of seasonal depression is yet unknown.
Light therapy works off of the “reduced sunlight” hypothesis and attempts to address the issue through artificial sunlight (or at least something that mimics sunlight). The theory is that you can “reset” your biological clock during the winter by making up for lost sunlight exposure, which should avert seasonal internal changes.
Light therapy is a first-line treatment for seasonal depression—if you are diagnosed with winter affective disorder, then light therapy should be one of the first attempted treatments. If it works, great! If not, other methods of treatment should be considered.
Only certain types of light should be used in light therapy. Avoid all forms of full-spectrum light, ultraviolet light, tanning lamps, and heat lamps! When in doubt, always consult your doctor, especially if your case of seasonal affective disorder is self-diagnosed.
How to Pick a Sunlight Lamp for Light Therapy
Sunlight lamps go by many names: “light therapy lamps,” “light therapy devices,” “phototherapy boxes,” and even “lightboxes.” These devices tend to do the same thing—give off a bright light that mimics sunlight—but not all sunlight lamps are equally effective.
Some sunlight lamps aren’t meant for seasonal depression. Light therapy is actually used as a treatment for several other issues, including some skin problems like psoriasis and eczema. These kinds of light therapy lamps emit ultraviolet light, which can be dangerous. Stick to sunlight lamps that are explicitly labelled for seasonal depression.
Whiter and brighter is usually better. The brightness of a lamp is measured in Lux, and the higher the Lux rating, the more light it gives off. Brighter lamps require less exposure time per day, but they may be uncomfortable to use. Your distance to the lamp also matters—the further away you plan on sitting, the brighter the light should be. For best results, stay within the 2,500 to 10,000 Lux range.
You may also find that some sunlight lamps give off “blue” light while others give off “white” light. There’s no conclusive evidence that either is more effective than the other, but white light tends to be cheaper and is generally considered safer.
LEDs are the most energy-efficient. Sunlight lamps are available in incandescent, fluorescent, and LED varieties. The brightness of light is more important than the type of bulb, but if you have the option, go with an LED sunlight lamp which will consume much less energy than either incandescent or fluorescent.
Recommended Sunlight Lamps for Light Therapy
If you want a sunlight lamp that’s effective, clinically-tested, doctor-recommended, and built to last for years to come, then it’s going to cost a pretty penny. It might hurt to shell out a few hundreds dollars on a sunlight lamp, but this one is worth it.
The Alaska Northern Lights NorthStar is a sunlight lamp specifically designed to combat seasonal depression. At 24 inches and a Lux rating of 10,000, you’re going to get a lot of light out of this thing—enough that you can sit up to 2 feet away (instead of the more common 1-foot distance).
This lamp has a 60-day money-back guarantee and a lifetime warranty. It uses fluorescent bulbs, emits no harmful ultraviolet rays, and has been on the market for over two decades. Want something tried and true? This is the one.
For an option that’s more affordable than the NorthStar but still built with quality and efficacy, consider this adjustable sunlight lamp from Carex Health Brands.
The Carex Day-Light Sky looks like something you’d find in a doctor’s office, but don’t let that scare you away. It produces a bright fluorescent light with 2 settings—7,000 Lux or 10,000 Lux—and emits virtually no ultraviolet light.
The lamp measures 24 inches in height, but the lightbox itself is only 12 inches. Both the lightbox and the extender arm can swivel to a noticeable degree, which is great when you need to reposition the lamp for whatever reason.
If you’re on a tight budget, we recommend saving up until you can afford one of the two lamps above. But if you really need one right now without spending too much, here’s the next best thing: the NatureBright SunTouch Plus.
This thing comes with a plastic exterior so it won’t feel as robust as the alternatives above (which both have metal exteriors), but the light itself shines at 10,000 Lux so it’s still effective for light therapy against seasonal depression.
The light-emitting area is about 12 inches, which is large enough for home use, but doesn’t have any swivels or pivots for adjustment so it might be a bit troublesome to set up comfortably.
Big sunlight lamps are great if you sit at a computer all day long, but if you work in an environment that has you constantly moving from place to place, a stationary lamp isn’t going to do you much good.
Which is why you might need a portable sunlight lamp. And as far as those go, nothing beats the value of the Sphere Gadget Lightphoria. The device is about 6 inches long but produces light at an impressive 10,000 Lux (it can be adjusted down if that’s too bright for you).
The kicker is that it has LED bulbs so it doesn’t use much energy at all, and it also has timer functions for 15, 30, and 45 minutes. No wonder this thing is a best seller in Amazon’s “Light Therapy Products” category.
If you can’t get the Lightphoria for some reason (maybe it’s too expensive) or if you don’t like it (maybe it’s too small), then here’s another portable sunlight lamp to consider: the Verilux HappyLight Liberty.
At 7 inches, it’s slightly bigger than the Lightphoria, but only produces light at a maximum rating of 5,000 Lux. It’s still effective for light therapy, but you’ll just have to be exposed to it for longer periods of time and have it closer to you—about 8 inches away.
It’s not ideal, but it’s incredibly cheap. You won’t find another light therapy lamp at this price with the same level of effectiveness.
Light Therapy Doesn’t Always Work
Even though light therapy is a first-line treatment, it isn’t perfect. If you happen to buy a sunlight lamp and it doesn’t do anything for you, then you should consult a doctor and get a professional diagnosis.
Seasonal depression may not even be your issue. You may be suffering from too much stress as a result of working too hard (i.e. workaholism). Maybe you need to start exercising more. Perhaps your computer habits are interfering with your sleep habits.
If light therapy doesn’t work for you, these alternatives are worth considering—especially the one about sleep health. Check out our article on devices that help you sleep better .
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