Light Therapy for SAD and Depression
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
My neighbor used one. Students would check these out from the university at which I used to work. The research supports its use. A lot of folks wonder if they should use SAD lamps for the dreary Seattle winters, and seasonal affective disorder in Seattle is a legitimate concern! This is a brief summary of light therapy with some suggested products at the end.
Overview – What is it, and why do it?
Light therapy uses exposure to bright light to treat depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) was the reason for developing light therapy, but it’s benefits extend beyond the seasonal type of depression. Large, meta-analysis research supports its efficacy for both seasonal and non-seasonal depressive symptoms (Golden et al., 2005). This means that light therapy may decrease your depressive symptoms whether or not they fluctuate with the seasons. It can benefit a wide range of people. Cost is another reason why some try light therapy—it often costs as little as a single session of therapy.
IMPORTANT: Light therapy is not a substitute for psychotherapy, particularly for severe depression or suicidal thoughts. You must be honest with yourself—delaying psychotherapy for something “easier” may only prolong your suffering. However, light therapy can be helpful in addition to psychotherapy.
How-To Do It
The typical, recommended treatment is 20-30 minutes each morning with a 10,000 lux lamp. Some people may find benefits with less time, and some will need more. I recommend using the lamp in the morning, because using it at night may cause difficulty falling asleep. Place the lamp at eye-level or higher (the light mimics being outside in sunlight), 16-24" away from your face, and at an angle—do not stare directly into the lamp! Keep your eyes open naturally.
Begin with 20-30 minutes each morning and monitor your mood. If you do not feel an effect, increase the time to up to an hour. Consistency is crucial, but you can multi-task while doing light therapy. Have breakfast, study, read, listen to a podcast—the world is your oyster.
Side effects appear to be minimal, but those who have them usually report headaches, eyestrain/irritation, or nausea. These side effects usually disappear after a few days of treatment (Kogan & Guilford, 1998). If you are attempting to treat bipolar disorder, speak with your therapist or schedule a consultation with me to determine the timing and exposure of the light therapy—there may be an increased risk of manic symptoms. If you have current or past concerns with your eyes, consult your doctor before beginning light therapy. Last, these lights should not cause sunburn or tans—most lamps reduce or shield completely the UV light that causes reddening or tanning.
Devices That Fit the Bill
When looking for a device, look for 10,000 lux, UV protection, and a price tag reasonable for your budget. I cannot independently test each of these products and do not professionally recommend them. That said, these seem to meet criteria for clinical effectiveness, and each costs less than two therapy sessions.
This device is ugly, large, and expensive, but has empirical support for it's effectiveness. If you want something to work, this is a good bet. It's built to direct light from eye level or above (recommended), has a UV filter, and provides 10,000lux at 23".
Classic Light Therapy
This is the device recommended by the Center for Environmental Therapeutics. Without empirical studies done on the following lamps I cannot say which would be most effective. However, this is a device I would buy and the one that I could recommend. Clinical effectiveness seems to have been the primary goal, with design and portability second.
Northern Light Technologies Boxelite-OS
This device meets criteria while offering a better design. Let's be honest: it still isn’t beautiful, but it is much less obtrusive than the previous recommendation.
Carex Day-Light Bright Therapy Lamp
This device is much smaller, and much cheaper than the other options. You often get what you pay for, but for the budget-conscious, this might be a helpful way to dip your toes in the SAD-lamp waters. It is very easy to think 10,000lux is enough, but note that the lit surface is much smaller. Lux is somewhat like PSI—if you inflate your car tire to 32psi and your bike tire to 32psi, the car tire will have much more air (unless you have quite the bike). So too will a bigger lamp with 10,000lux produce more light—which is the “active ingredient” of light treatment.
This device could work well for an area in which you need a lamp to stand apart from a table. If you prefer to spend your mornings in a chair or couch, this could be your answer.
Flamingo 10,000 Lux Bright Light Therapy Floor Lamp
Golden, R. N., Gaynes, B. N., Ekstrom, R. D., Hamer, R. M., Jacobsen, F. M., . . . Nemeroff, C. B. (2005). The efficacy of light therapy in the treatment of mood disorders: A review and meta-analysis of the evidence. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 162, 656-662. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.162.4.656
Kogan, A. O., & Guilford, P. M. (1998). Side effects of short-term 10,000-lux light therapy. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 155. 293-294.
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