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I have yet to meet a soul whose mood is boosted by the shorter, darker days that happen during certain seasons. It’s not all bad — you might love to ski, cozy up by a fire, or enjoy holiday festivities during those months of the year — but many people have less energy and feel down when natural daylight is scarce (hence the winter blues).
If you have depression symptoms that are more pronounced when there is less sunlight, particularly after daylight saving time ends in November (that’s Nov. 6, BTW), it may even be considered seasonal affective disorder (SAD). One of the first treatments usually recommended for SAD is a light therapy lamp.
“What happens in seasonal affective disorder is that we notice an increase in depression or an onset in depression associated with certain seasons,” said Jessica Stern, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health.
“For some people, they have depression [all] year long and then it gets worse in a certain season, whereas for other people, they might find that their mood is okay throughout the year and that they have an onset of depression in a certain season. It most frequently happens in the winter.” (Some people get summer-related depression, where mood changes start in the spring and tend to get better by the fall.)
The symptoms of SAD are generally the same as those you would associate with other types of depression, including anxiety, fatigue, hopelessness, and loss of interest in activities you typically enjoy.
Researchers are not sure exactly what causes seasonal depression, but Stern noted that light impacts our circadian rhythms, which are related to the functioning of our minds and bodies.
Hanne Hoffmann, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, conducts research on how light impacts brain function, and has also experienced seasonal depression herself. She didn’t realize how much it was affecting her until her husband pointed out a change after they moved from California to Michigan.
“It’s not something that you wake up one morning and feel depressed,” Hoffmann told BuzzFeed News. “It’s something that comes slowly. It creeps up on you.”
That’s why Hoffmann believes it’s beneficial to seek treatment even before symptoms set in, particularly if you know you’re prone to seasonal depression. Starting something like light therapy in the early fall may even prevent symptoms from coming altogether, she said.
SAD treatments are the same as those for any type of major depressive disorder, Stern said. That would include cognitive behavioral therapy and medications like SSRIs, SNRIs, and other types, depending on a specific person’s need.
The other popular treatment option is light therapy, which is essentially just exposing yourself to as much bright light as is safe and possible. The best time to do this is first thing in the morning.
Hoffmann said that when there is light outdoors, getting yourself outside in the morning is a great idea. “The morning is when your body is most likely to stimulate these mood centers in your brain,” she said. In other words, the light’s capacity to boost your mood is highest in the A.M.
However, we know that there is less intense natural light in the winter, which is why you may want to consider buying a light therapy lamp. One of the best things about light therapy lamps is that they’re a low-risk, low-side-effect intervention for seasonal depression that can be very effective, according to Stern.
Light therapy lamps typically help 80% of people with seasonal depression, if you get the right lamp and use it properly, Hoffman said. There are, however, certain conditions or medications, like photosensitizing antibiotics, that can make light therapy inadvisable. Therefore, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting treatment.
For example, people with eye conditions that affect the retina, which can happen with diabetes, may want to avoid light exposure. Those with bipolar disorder can be extra sensitive to light, so you may need to work with a healthcare professional to find the right amount.
Once you get the go-ahead, the next task is to choose a lamp. Both experts agreed that light therapy lamps should have a minimum intensity of 10,000 lux.
“To put that into context, on a cloudy day in the winter in Michigan, you might have 200 to 300 lux outside. A bright day in the summer would be about 100,000 lux. So 10,000 is very bright compared to indoor lighting. It’s nothing compared to bright natural lighting, but it will feel very strong in the winter compared to the light outside,” Hoffman said.
Not only should your lamp emit 10,000 lux or more, it should also be UV-free so that it won’t damage your eyes or skin. The ideal surface area of the light is around 8 to 10 inches, and you should aim to sit roughly 20 inches away from it for at least 30 minutes first thing in the morning, five to seven days per week.
Light therapy lamps won’t be effective for everyone, but they are a fairly simple and affordable option with minimal drawbacks. The following SAD lamps all meet the expert specifications. Winter is unfortunately coming, but I hope these may help you maintain your summer mood all year long.
This product delivers 10,000 lux from 12 inches away, has a large surface area, and blocks over 99% of UV light. What’s more, it has a nearly 5-star rating.
This may not be the cutest lamp, but it has everything you need for effective light therapy.
Promising review: “I’ve had this light for over a year now (two winters) and am happy with my purchase. It’s not small, I wouldn’t say it’s pretty and it’s awkward to move & adjust (always afraid I’m going to break it) … but it works and I haven’t seen any other product that looks as good.”—wingit
You can buy the Carex Day-Light Classic Therapy Lamp from Amazon for around $109.
If you’re still skeptical about the effectiveness of light therapy and want to start off with a more affordable yet still well-reviewed SAD lamp, this HappyLight is a great dupe for the Northern Light option above. The face of the light box is smaller, which is the only drawback, but it still falls into Hoffmann’s suggested surface area. It’s also 10,000 lux, UV-free, and portable.
Promising review: “Very easy to use and super bright. We placed ours in a dark corner wall of our living room to provide a feeling of natural light during the winter and it really does liven up the room. It’s hard to describe a feeling, but my wife and I both agree that the light does seem to work to better our mood during the winter. It’s not a miracle cure for Seasonal Affective Disorder by itself, but I do feel like the Happylight does help quite a lot.” —snowbro6
You can buy the Verilux HappyLight Luxe from Amazon for around $70.
This version of the Verilux Happy Light is even smaller and less expensive than the previous one, but it does come at a cost — it falls a tiny bit under the recommended surface area (which is only an ideal parameter, not a necessity). However, it makes up for it with very good reviews and still offers 10,000 lux of UV-free, full spectrum light in a unique round shape. It’s another good starter light option that’s easy to take with you on the go.
Promising review: “What a game changer. It adds a bit of ‘hello sunshine’ to my day. It is a must have during dark, rainy winters. I honestly can’t work in my home office without it.” —Marta via Target
You can buy the Happy Light Alba Novelty Table Lamp from Target for around $60.
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