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If you deal with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), soaking up some artificial sun from a light therapy lamp — aka a SAD lamp — may help relieve those seasonal depression feels.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that has a seasonal pattern, usually brought on by lack of sunlight in the fall and winter. By looking into a SAD lamp you essentially trick your eyes and brain into thinking it’s a warm, sunny day. This can help elevate your mood and potentially ease SAD symptoms.
Here’s how light therapy can help SAD, and how to choose the right SAD lamp for you.
SAD lamps — also called light boxes, sun lamps, and light therapy lamps — are lamps that emit artificial sunlight used for light therapy.
Essentially light therapy is using artificial bright light (measured in lux) to replicate sunlight in the darker months. During a light therapy sesh, you’ll sit in front of your SAD lamp for about 30 to 60 minutes first thing in the morning. The light will enter your eyes and signal to your brain you’re in the sun. Neat trick!
But you can’t just use any sun lamp. The FDA doesn’t regulate SAD lamps, so it’s important you get one that’s both safe and effective. At the most basic level, a SAD lamp should offer 10,000 lux of light and filter out UV light. ☀️
Soaking up some artificial sunlight might sound suss, but light therapy is usually a first-line treatment for people with SAD. Light therapy is also used to help treat circadian rhythm sleep disorders, non-seasonal depression, and insomnia.
Mainly SAD lamps help counter changes in circadian rhythm and boost feel-good serotonin levels, which may help ease SAD symptoms.
Your circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that regulates uber important things like sleep, alertness, body temperature, and your mood. Getting less sunshine in the winter could mess with your circadian rhythm so you feel more tired and are vulnerable to depression.
Research on light therapy for SAD specifically is small and dated, but there’s promising evidence that light therapy works. A 2001 study found folks with SAD experienced decreased symptoms after 40 percent more bright white light exposure after 4 weeks. Another 2004 study found a light therapy, exercise, or a combo of both helped reduce folks’ depressive symptoms.
Before you shop for a SAD lamp, consider these questions and their relative importance to you:
- How much does it cost? Most lamps designed for seasonal depression range from $30 to a few hundred dollars. Your insurance may not help with that expense.
- What is the lamp’s purpose? Make sure you get a lamp that is meant for treating mood disorders. Some light therapy is meant for treating skin conditions but may not help with SAD.
- Does it filter UV light? Your lamp should filter all UV light to avoid damage to eyes and skin.
- How bright is it? The recommended brightness for treating SAD is 10,000 lux of white light. Less bright lamps will require longer daily exposure to be effective.
- Where do you plan to use it? The lamp you choose should be a size that fits where you need it and is positionable if you will use it in different spaces. Also consider whether it is portable if you travel a lot.
- Do you need a larger lighted surface area? This is important if you will be moving around and can’t hold your face in one position for the entire treatment.
- Is it aesthetic? If this fixture is going to be a daily part of your life for half the year, you may want to pick one that looks good while still providing the best light therapy.
Now you know what your priorities are and you’re ready to shop. Here are some of the top SAD lamps that might fit your needs.
- $ = under $40
- $$ = $40–$60
- $$$ = over $60
Best overall: Carex Day-Light Classic Plus, Light Therapy Lamp
This light gives you powerful 10,000 lux, glare-free light, but it doesn’t require you to sit up close like most lamps. Because this light is about the size of a computer monitor, you can sit a whopping 12 inches away. Reviewers rave about this feature, claiming it gives them plenty of light without hurting their eyes.
The adjustable base also offers plenty of options on how to position the lamp. Just note it is BIG, so you’ll have to sacrifice some space.
Best versatile: Circadian Optics Lumos Light Therapy Lamp
With more than 5,000 ratings on Amazon, this is a popular, midrange option that reviewers love for its compact size that still delivers 10,000 lux.
The lamp is small and can be positioned at multiple angles, so you can use it at home or throw it in your bag if you’re on the go. It also has three brightness options if you prefer to spend more time with your lamp at a lower setting.
Best for small spaces: Verilux HappyLight Lucent
Another popular option on Amazon, folks love this light’s small footprint (it’s about the size of a small tablet) and the detachable stand. If space is really an issue, you can even mount it to a wall.
With 10,000 lux of bright white light, it meets the needs of someone who wants to give light therapy a try without breaking the bank. It’s minimalist design also won’t throw off the whole look of your home decor.
Best budget: Verilux HappyLight VT10
If you’re tight on space and funds, consider this budget-friendly option that can fit in the tiniest of homes. It still produces 10,000 lux, but in a much smaller package.
And while it’s not the most aesthetic option, more than 7,000 Amazon ratings earned it a 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Best for travel: Circadian Optics Luxy Light Therapy Lamp
If you’re on the road a lot or plan to do light therapy in different locations, this lamp is about the size of your hand. But while it’s small, it still offers powerful 10,000 lux of bright light.
Amazon reviewers also rave about its compact, foldable design that turns into its own protective case. Perfect to throw into your purse or backpack. Just don’t accidentally misplace it at your AirBnB.
Ready to bask in the glow of your SAD lamp? Here’s the most effective and efficient ways to absorb the benefits of light therapy:
- Choose a lamp that produces 10,000 lux of bright white light with zero UV.
- Make time for a light session when you first wake up. While you can use your lamp at other times, it’s most effective in the early morning.
- Make it part of your daily routine from autumn to spring to compensate for less daylight during those months.
- Sit in front of the lamp (at the recommended distance from your face) for 30 minutes. If you are positioned farther away from the lamp, aim for longer sessions (1–2 hours.)
Talk with your doctor and consider another treatment option if you have any of these conditions that might be worsened by light therapy:
- Eye disease that might make you sensitive to light.
- Taking certain medications that increase light sensitivity.
- Bipolar disorder (light therapy may induce mania in people with this disorder).
Also be sure your lamp blocks all UV rays, and don’t stare directly at the lamp. 😎
Though light therapy is usually the first treatment for SAD, it can be combined with other therapies and treatments like:
- Psychotherapy. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for SAD. CBT involves replacing negative thoughts with positive ones and focusing on behaviors that are positive. One study found that CBT was just as effective as light therapy 1 year after treatment, and more effective than light therapy after 2 years.
- Antidepressants. Medications may be effective for SAD, but they often cause side effects that make people stop taking them.
- Vitamin D. Your body produces vitamin D when you’re exposed to sunlight and people with SAD have lower blood levels of vitamin D. However, a 2020 review of 11 studies found that supplementing with vitamin D did not improve SAD symptoms.
- Physical activity. Exercise is thought to improve mood by increasing dopamine levels.
- Sleep hygiene. Optimizing your sleep routine (and thereby regulating hormones and circadian rhythms) may improve SAD symptoms enough to get you through the dull seasons.
- Melatonin supplements. Studies on the effectiveness of melatonin supplements have been mixed or inconclusive. It’s thought to be safe but long-term effects haven’t been studied.
Using a SAD lamp daily during darker months may be an effective treatment if you deal with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in the fall and winter.
Aim for 30 minutes of light therapy early in the morning with a lamp that produces 10,000 lux and filters out UV light.
Light therapy can also be used with other therapies and treatments. Chat with your doc about finding the best treatments for SAD.