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Nov 24, 2021
7 min read

What is a SAD lamp?

SAD lamps or light boxes are devices that simulate sunlight to treat symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Using a SAD lamp can help reset your circadian rhythm, as well as regulate the production of melatonin and serotonin—two hormones involved in sleep and mood. Daily bright light therapy and dawn simulation, two light therapy techniques, can give you those benefits even during the darker winter months.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

When you have seasonal affective disorder, or SAD for short, it can feel impossible to overcome the feelings of depression and fatigue. Waiting for spring to come and alleviate your symptoms can feel like moving in slow motion through a long, dark tunnel. 

But there might be a light at the end of this tunnel—literally. Meet SAD lamps.    

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What is a SAD lamp? 

A SAD lamp or light box is a device that simulates sunlight. It’s used to provide phototherapy (light therapy) to treat SAD, a type of depression that affects roughly 5% of people every year (APA, 2020). 

For those who experience SAD, dark winter days with fewer hours of daylight don’t just look gloomy. The lack of light can also affect your circadian rhythm, otherwise known as your internal clock, shifting the levels of certain chemicals in your brain like melatonin and serotonin, which are associated with sleep and mood. When these hormones are out of balance, it can leave you feeling depressed and fatigued. 

SAD lamps supply safe, bright light that mimics sunlight to help your body adjust its circadian rhythm, raise serotonin levels, and regulate melatonin. This can treat many symptoms of SAD, especially sadness, excessive sleepiness, and changes in eating patterns. 

How to use a SAD lamp

Most SAD lamps are pretty easy to operate. The most common types of SAD lights are called bright light therapy lamps and dawn simulation, which we’ll take a look at below.

Bright light therapy

Devices for bright light therapy use fluorescent or LED light bulbs that provide 10,000 lux of white light. Lux tells you how bright something is; higher lux equals higher brightness. 

For example, 1 lux is the brightness of a single candle, 400 lux is sunrise levels of light, and 130,000 lux is max direct sunlight. So the 10,000 lux of a SAD lamp approximates daylight.

The best time to use bright light therapy is in the morning, shortly after you wake up. Research shows that an early morning pulse of bright light can help shift your circadian rhythm back to its baseline (Lewy, 2006). Ideally, you should use the lamp for 20–40 minutes a day for the best results (Virk, 2009). It’s not recommended to use the lamp for more than 60 minutes a day.

And no, you don’t have to sit there and stare into the lamp the whole time. You can do other things like working at your desk, reading, exercising, or even brushing your teeth. As long as the light is shining on your face, you’re good to go. The lamps are also adjustable so you can set it at an angle that prevents light from shining right into your eyes. 

Dawn simulation lamps

Another option for light therapy is dawn simulation. Dawn simulators are attached to an alarm clock feature, where the light gradually turns on, getting brighter and bright and simulating a regular sunrise in your bedroom, which is likely still dark during the winter months when you need to get up. These devices have been shown to be at least as effective as bright light therapy and have the added benefit of working like natural alarm clocks (Danilenko, 2015; Terman, 2006). 

Some research actually suggests that dawn simulation may be more efficient than bright light. One study found that dawn simulation induced remission (total resolution of SAD symptoms) in more people than bright light therapy or placebo (Avery, 2001). 

Advantages of light therapy

Light therapy offers a non-pharmaceutical option for treating SAD. For people unable to take antidepressants or those who are concerned about possible side effects, a SAD lamp might be a good alternative. It’s often used as a first-line treatment for mild to moderate SAD (Meesters, 2016). 

Disadvantages of light therapy

Light therapy might not be convenient for everyone since you need to devote 20-40 minutes to it every day. Dawn simulation is done while you’re sleeping, but you still need to set up a device and remember to program it. 

People with eye problems (like retinal disease) might not be able to use light therapy as it could pose a risk of worsening eye damage. Light therapy also might not be as effective for people with severe SAD symptoms; in this case, antidepressant medication may be necessary (Reme, 1996). 

Where do you buy a SAD lamp? 

Before purchasing a SAD lamp, it’s best to consult with a healthcare professional who can offer guidance and monitor your results. 

Avoid selecting a lamp that uses ultraviolet or UV light. UV lamps are commonly used to treat skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis but should be avoided in bright light therapy since UV light can damage the eyes (Pail, 2011). 

There are many types of SAD lamps, with different features and at various costs. They can be purchased at medical supply stores, pharmacies like CVS or Walmart, and online retailers like Amazon. Some popular brands include:

  • Carex: Carex offers 10,000 lux lights with filters to eliminate harmful UV rays. The brand has different options at varying prices to suit different needs. Some are simpler desk lamps with just a bulb. Other models include the Carex Day-Light Classic Plus and Theralite Aura Wellness Lamp, which have adjustable screens that can be angled in different positions. Reviews are generally positive, with the majority of ratings between 4–5 stars.   
  • Circadian Optics: Circadian Optics devices are 10,000 lux LED lamps. The company reports the products are 99.9% UV-filtered. They offer smaller, portable travel lamps to help with jet lag and larger, more decorative versions with adjustable brightness levels. A perk is that many models are less expensive than other brands. They are also well-rated, with most reviews between 4–5 stars.
    Northern Light Technologies: This company offers a popular bright light therapy light called the Flamingo Floor Lamp. It’s a 4-foot-tall, 10,000 lux, UV-filtered, adjustable LED lamp with different light settings. The Flamingo lamp is a good option if you’re looking for a floor lamp rather than a desktop version. The only downside is that the cost is higher than other models, but its 4–5 star ratings indicate it’s worth the price. 
  • Verilux: Verilux offers 10,000 lux floor and desktop lamps. They report that their lamps are UV-free and easy to operate. Devices like the Verilux HappyLight allow you to adjust the light intensity and are more budget-friendly. Most product reviews are 4–5 stars.

SAD can make life extremely difficult during the winter months. But you don’t have to wait for spring for things to get better. Bright light therapy may be part of the solution, and there’s no shortage of options when it comes to selecting a lamp. Speaking with a mental health professional can help you navigate the condition and find the treatment that’s right for you.

References

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