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When looking for ways to manage the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, you’ll often hear about using light therapy for SAD.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs at specific times of the year, most commonly during fall and winter when daylight hours are shorter.
Using light therapy offers a promising avenue for managing SAD symptoms and enhancing overall well-being during these challenging months.
This is one of many studies that highlight how light therapy can be used as a personalized treatment of mood disorders, including seasonal affective disorder.
The use of light therapy for SAD is further supported by Dr. Richard S. Schwartz, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. An article published on Harvard Medical School’s blog quotes Dr. Schwartz’s recommendation that light therapy is as effective as antidepressants and other forms of psychotherapy for managing seasonal depression.
If you experience a persistently low mood during the winter months it helps to understand what is light therapy and how light therapy for SAD works.
What is Light Therapy? How Does Light Therapy Work?
During the winter months, the days get shorter and we get fewer sunshine hours. Even when the sun is out, its rays are weaker and the sky is cloudier.
The short, gray, sunless days can leave you feeling down and listless all the time. This is because our body needs adequate sunshine for overall well-being. Lack of sunshine is the single biggest cause of seasonal affective disorder.
If low light levels are what trigger your SAD symptoms, it stands to reason that exposure to light can help prevent or at least minimize the intensity and frequency of the symptoms. This is the principle on which light therapy for SAD works.
Light therapy is the process of exposing your body to light on a regular basis. However, exposure to regular household bulbs is not enough. What you need is a bright light that is emitted by special Light Therapy Lamps for SAD.
Also known as just light lamps or phototherapy boxes, these are specially designed to emit light at a specific intensity that mimics outdoor natural light. Exposure to the light emitted by these lamps boosts serotonin levels in the body, which helps lift your mood and reduces your SAD symptoms.
Light therapy is also known as phototherapy.
Types of SAD Lamps
There are several types of light therapy devices available. The three most commonly used are:
Light Boxes: Light boxes are the most common type of light therapy device. They emit bright light, typically at intensities of 10,000 lux or higher. Light boxes are designed to be placed on a table or desk, and individuals sit in front of them for a designated period, usually 30 minutes to an hour.
Dawn Simulators: Dawn simulators are devices that mimic the natural sunrise by gradually increasing the intensity of light in the room. These devices can be particularly beneficial for individuals who have difficulty waking up in the morning or experience disrupted sleep patterns due to SAD.
Light Visors: Light visors are wearable devices that provide light therapy while allowing individuals to move around freely. They are a portable and convenient option for those who prefer to incorporate light therapy into their daily activities.
How to Use Light Therapy for SAD
Every SAD lamp is designed to be placed and used differently. Make sure to read and follow the instructions that come with your device. You must talk to your doctor before you get started using light therapy for SAD.
Your doctor will help you choose the right light therapy lamp for you and also give you tailored advice based on any existing medical condition you may have.
These tips on how to use light therapy for SAD are based on the advice my doctor gave me.
– Timing: For best results, use your SAD lamp within the first hour of waking up in the morning. This mimics the natural sunrise and boosts your serotonin levels so you start the day right. Don’t wait until you are already starting to feel sad, blue, or depressed to benefit from the light therapy.
– Distance: Switch on the lamp and sit at a distance of about 16 to 24 inches away from it. This is the optimum distance for getting the benefits of light therapy for SAD. Sitting too far away will weaken the effect of the lamp’s emissions. Sitting too close is unadvisable too.
– Duration: Start with shorter sessions, around 15-30 minutes, and gradually increase the duration if needed. The recommended duration is 20 to 30 minutes. This is the estimated time the body needs to boost the serotonin levels.
– Eye Protection: Although light therapy devices emit safe levels of light, it’s advisable to avoid looking directly at the light source to minimize the risk of eye strain. However, you do need to keep your eyes open to maximize the benefits. Reading, working on a computer, or engaging in other activities helps you get the benefits without the risks.
– Consistency: Commit to regular light therapy sessions in the morning throughout the fall and winter months, even if you start feeling better. Continuous treatment helps to maintain the positive effects of light therapy.
Start using light therapy in the fall before you start experiencing the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Being proactive is key to beating those winter blues.
Incorporate self-care for SAD into your daily schedule to maintain the beneficial effects of your light therapy sessions.
Tips For Choosing the Right Light Therapy Lamp
All light therapy lamps for SAD treatment are basically designed to do the same thing – provide exposure to sufficient lux of light. However, each light box has its own unique set of features.
Before buying a light therapy box for SAD, you must factor in its light intensity, safety features, and whether or not it emits UV light. Cost and style are also important considerations. You want to be able to afford it and also look good in your room.
These are the four most important features to look for when buying a light therapy box for SAD:
1. Light Intensity: Look for a device that emits at least 10,000 lux of light. Higher-intensity devices may provide quicker results, but too much isn’t necessarily good.
2. UV-Free Light: Ensure that the device emits UV-free light to avoid potential harm to your skin and eyes.
3. Size and Portability: Consider the size and portability of the device to ensure it fits into your lifestyle and daily routine. If you travel a lot, look for a portable lamp.
4. User-Friendly Features: Look for devices with adjustable brightness levels, timers, and other user-friendly features to enhance your light therapy experience.
4 Questions to Ask When Buying a SAD Lamp
1. Is The Light Therapy Lab Designed Specifically For SAD?
There are two types of light therapy lamps – those designed for skin disorders and those designed for SAD.
Devices designed for skin disorders will not reduce your SAD symptoms. Moreover, they emit UV light, which could damage your eyes if used incorrectly. SAD lamps are designed to emit little or no UV light.
Read the description before you buy.
2. How Much UV Light Does It Emit?
Light boxes for SAD should filter out most or all UV light to avoid damaging your eyes. Read the product details to see how much UV light the lamp emits.
Ask your doctor for help in choosing a SAD lamp especially if you have glaucoma, cataract, damage due to diabetes, or any other eye problems.
If you need additional safety information, don’t hesitate to contact the manufacturer and ask.
3. What Is The Light Intensity Of The SAD Lamp?
Different light therapy lamps emit light of different intensities. The typical recommended light intensity is 10,000 lux.
If you use a brighter lamp you may need to use it for a shorter period of time to achieve the same effect as a lower-intensity lamp.
4. Is It Style Right For Your Space?
You’ll be using the lamp every day to get the benefits of light therapy for SAD. With that in mind, it helps to place it in a spot that’s convenient and practical.
Think about where you’re going to place the device so it’s easily accessible and then choose a lamp that suits that spot.
Light therapy lamps in come in a wide array of shapes, sizes, and features. Choosing one that fits your selected spot will ensure that you use it every day.
Risks & Precautions
Light therapy is generally safe and well-tolerated, with minimal side effects. However, it is not regulated or approved by the FDA for treating SAD, which makes it even more important to speak to your doctor before using a SAD lamp.
These are some mild and temporary side effects to look out for:
Prolonged exposure to bright light can cause eye strain or discomfort. Positioning the light source correctly and avoiding direct eye contact can help minimize this effect.
In some cases, light therapy may trigger headaches, especially if the intensity or duration of the sessions is not properly adjusted. Starting slow and gradually increasing the duration and intensity of light therapy can help reduce the likelihood of headaches.
Rarely, light therapy may cause feelings of agitation or irritability. If these symptoms persist or worsen, consult with a healthcare professional.
Be aware that many of the side effects that can be experienced are short-lived and mild in severity, but, they should never be ignored.
Using light therapy for SAD can offer welcome relief by itself if you experience mild symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. However, if your symptoms are more severe, your doctor may recommend additional measures.
Don’t just stop with using light therapy for SAD. While it is effective on its own, there are several other things you can do to manage and reduce the winter blues. Combining multiple strategies is the best way to reduce SAD symptoms in the colder months.
These articles may help:
Last but certainly not least – Stay Informed. The title of this book is self-explanatory. It dives deep into the topic so you have all the information you need. Winter Blues, Fourth Edition: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder
Disclaimer: This information is not intended to serve as medical advice. Please consult your doctor before using any natural medication or if you experience any unusual symptoms. See Full Disclaimer here.