For those of us who live in areas that receive little sunlight during the winter months, the arrival of the cold, bleak winter can mean depression, melancholy, and lethargy. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) impacts many people. Millions spend months arriving at work before dawn, working inside all day, and going home after dark.
This life can be very difficult.
Over the past several years, there have been many innovations in the SAD lamp arena, with a wide variety of artificial sunlight systems designed to help deal with SAD symptoms.
This article looks at Artificial Sunlight Lamps for depression and considers the power and effectiveness of various light therapy solutions for seasonal affective disorder.
There is a Season…
If you live near to the equator, then your winter and summers are almost the same. You’ll most likely receive 12 hours of light and twelve hours of darkness, no matter what the time of year. The higher the latitude of where you live, the fewer months you will have of daylight.
Of course, many of us don’t live at 00 or 900 latitudes, so we have a mix of the four seasons, Spring, Summer, Fall (Autumn) and Winter. We live out the routine of our lives based around those changes. You would think we’d be acclimatized to the seasonal differences but, alas, life’s not that simple, is it?
Only a couple of hundred years ago, 75% of the population spent most of their lives working outdoors in agriculture. Industrialization changed much of that. Now, we bury our heads in offices, shops, and factories, under artificial lighting and often polluted air.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Depression
We humans are fickle creatures. As a whole, we’re quite adaptable, but it’s the smaller details that can throw us off balance. Sure, we have the most intelligent of brains. Yet, to function at our best, our bodies need a certain balance of natural hormones. For some, the constant changing of the seasons can disrupt the balance of such hormones.
This is known as an emotional imbalance called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
If anything, this disorder highlights how important the sun is to life. It’s when there is a lack of sunshine that the disorder tends to kick-in. Most of us may not even be aware that we suffer from it. Science doesn’t fully understand what the causes of SAD are, but here a few popular theories:
When the light decreases the message sent to the brain is that it’s time to unwind. In the darkness, the brain produces more of the hormone known as melatonin. It’s produced in abundance for animals who hibernate, so you can imagine why it plays havoc to humans. It’s thought that some people might overproduce it in the winter.
Also known as the Circadian Rhythm. It helps to regulate our basic body functions, such as sleeping, eating, and energy levels. The shorter daylight hours disrupt this body clock. The effects of this upset some people more than others if they can’t adjust quickly.
Do you suffer from the winter blues?
If you are, that’s a good reason for you to look into this disorder.
As summer closes and the daylight hours shrink, you need to be aware of whether the weather is a cause for your blues. It’s all down to those natural hormones and the lack of sunshine that causes a fall in serotonin levels.
Your body might want to hibernate but you still have to get up and go out to work. Almost everyone hates the dark mornings. But those suffering the winter blue are most likely being affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
What then are the symptoms you need to be aware of, so you can adjust your routine to accept the coming darker months?
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Wanting to stay in bed more and more in the morning.
- Foggy brain, particularly on a morning when you get up.
- General lethargy and depression
- Comfort eating, such as a sudden yearning for more carbohydrate foods.
- A sudden need to nap during the day.
Sounds like a big grouchy bear hunkering down for the winter, doesn’t it?
These are your warning signals, but the chances are that you’re not sleeping properly either. This can lead on to further symptoms and they only get worse. In effect, you’re on your way to becoming depressed.
Tiredness causes irritability which leads on to mood swings.
Your moods may become quite low at times with little enthusiasm for your daily routine.
Can you see the downward spiral?
Once that exhaustion gets deeply ingrained, it’s like a domino’s effect. You will gradually lose interest in everything you do. Your eating habits may change and you may even start getting up during the night to eat.
SAD most certainly leads on to depression, but it is a different kind of downer. The good news is that it should go away when the days get longer again. Whereas someone who suffers depression will have bouts of it all year round.
SAD sufferers tend to feel like this as the Fall (Autumn) approaches. The winter is when you’ll notice it the most. In effect, the lack of daylight hours is the cause of your condition.
Treatment for SAD
The best way to tackle SAD is to first recognize that you have it. If you ignore the earlier symptoms of excessive lethargy at certain times of the year, it will escalate into a depressive state.
As the symptoms begin, usually around the time that daylight weakens and decreases, there are some natural steps you can take.
Get More Sun – without Sunscreen!
Yes, you read that right. You should be getting outside in the sun during the winter months without using sunscreen. Of course, you still need to be careful if you work outside, spend a long time outside, or will be in reflective environments like skiing.
Sunscreen will block vitamin D production at least somewhat, so you want to wait to put on sunscreen until after you’ve got your dose of light, especially in winter.
For much of the world, during the winter months, the UV Index is under 3. In times when the UV index is under 3, you should be going outside and getting sunlight without using sunscreen. As Australia’s Sunsmart organization explains, when the UV Index is under 3:
• Sun protection is generally not required
• Go outdoors in the middle of the day to support vitamin D production
• Being physically active e.g. gardening or going for a walk will help
There are many benefits to sun exposure, and it’s not just the well-known vitamin D. Get outside during the daytime whenever you can. Take a walk in a park or woodlands where the natural scenery will help lift your mood. The daylight increases your vitamin D production and this can’t be done sitting in front of a window.
Humans do still need some of those ultraviolet rays from the sun. Plus, the exercise will help you with that “feel good” factor.
We have to include on supplements for Vitamin D on our list, though there’s little evidence that vitamin D in supplement form does much good.
Vitamin D strengthens the musculoskeletal system and also affects your immune system. This includes bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons. Why a decrease in vitamin D causes SAD syndrome is not fully understood. Studies in 2013 show that many patients with mental illness also have low levels of this vitamin.
It’s much better to get your vitamin D from actual sunlight, so sun should be your first stop. It’s possible that the studies are wrong, and vitamin D in supplement form may do something, but that’s not at all clear.
Those who are susceptible to depression may be more likely to suffer SAD. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) sessions may get to the core root of the low moods. This type of therapy may enhance the patient’s chances of also treating SAD.
Certain medicines help to balance chemicals in the brain. Some doctors believe this also helps to relieve the symptoms of SAD.
Artificial Sunlight Lamps for Depression
This is a form of light therapy using lighting, known as SAD lamps. These lamps aren’t standard electrical lamp, they’re specific types of lights that mimic the sun in various ways. For those looking for the first time, choosing the right lamp can be a minefield. There are many misleading products on the market. Watch out for false advertising on the following.
Grow lights are useless for SAD lamps. Don’t be tempted to use them for this kind of therapy. We’ll look at this again in the section on bulbs.
Daylight or Full Spectrum bulbs are not powerful enough. Their lighting may help a little with fatigue but it’s unlikely to help with SAD.
Wake up alarm lights that give sunrise simulation are soothing, but they cannot treat SAD.
Ideally, for SAD treatment, you should be looking for a light that has 10,000lux (Luminous flux). Lux is the measurement of light intensity and is calculated as 1-lux = 1 lumens per square meter. The science of light measurement isn’t easy to understand but here are some tips in layman’s terms:
- A bright sunny day produces around 100,000lux
- If you stand in the shade on the same day, that will reduce to around 20,000lux.
- An overcast day will give you only around 1,000-2,000lux
- Let’s say it’s an average day outdoors giving you up to 10,000lux. If you were to sit by your window, that will reduce to around 1000lux.
- If you were to walk to the center of your room, this drops to around 40-50lux.
- So, going outdoors always increases the amount of lux you receive in your eyes, as that is how the light is measured, by the amount that your eyes are taking in.
Now let’s have a look at some of the pros and cons of SAD lamps, so you can see what the various functions do:
Verilux Lucent 10,000 Lux LED White Light Therapy Lamp
- White Light
- 5 x 7 inches
- LED light
Verilux makes some excellent SAD lamps, or Happy Lights as they like to call them. We’ve reviewed many Verilux Happy Lights here.
The Lucent is a sleek, full-spectrum light, designed to look like an electronic tablet. It’s easy to set this model on your desk, or on a table next to you, so you can receive the benefits with it positioned close by.
It’s an LED light that is UV, flicker, and glare-free. The idea is that hardly even notice that it’s on. The manufacturers note that the light has passed all international safety tests for vision, so you know it’s safe for your eyes. It has a simple on, off switch so it’s not complicated to use.
The Verilux supplies light pretty well, and is in a useful form factor. The problem with this light, and other similar lamps, is that the 10,000 lux measurement is done assuming that the light is positioned 12-18″ from your face. You need to sit very close to this lamp for 20-30 minutes per day to get your dose.
The further you sit from the lamp, the longer you need to be exposed to it.
Some buyers find this to be too much of an inconvenience.
- It isn’t bright enough unless you stand within inches of it.
- The stand is a little flimsy so constant moving the lamp may cause problem.
- It causes headaches for some, but not for all.
Next, we compared it to a different shaped white light, that also gives off 10,000lux.
Circadian Optics Lumos 2.0 Light Therapy Lamp | 10,000 LUX
Key Features at a Glance
- White Light
- 14 x 3.5 inches
- 3 brightness levels
As you can see this is a different shape with a much more solid stand. Some other factors are similar in both models seem generally standard with these lamps, such as UV, flicker, and glare-free. Note that being UV free also means these lamps will not help you increase your vitamin D production. That comes from the UV rays of the sun.
The variable settings mean you can use the SAD lamp as a desk lamp too. Only the highest setting is of any for SAD light therapy.
This light provides essentially the same light output as the Verilux, and also needs to be positioned quite close to the face, 12″ or so away for 20-30 minute dose.
In summary, both lights seem to be equally as effective. Most users were happy with the performance of both. Could it be a placebo effect or is it that we just don’t understand enough of this condition yet?
SMY Blue Light Adjustable LED Sad Light Therapy
Key Features at a Glance
- Blue Light
- 9.5 x 5.5 inches (approx.)
- 2 brightness levels
Once again this model is designed like a tablet. The standard features of UV and flicker-free also apply. The difference with this one is that it can be set on three different timers using 10, 20 or 30-minute sessions.
Within the included instructions, it recommends that you place the light 12-20-inches away from your eyes, similar to the other lamps. You can power this model from the USB port of your computer, making it ideal for sitting on your desk while you work.
The main difference with this one is that it concentrates the light in the blue wavelength, as opposed to the usual broad-spectrum white light.
There is some evidence that blue/green wavelength light works as well or better than white light, and many users find this lamp to be effective. But it still suffers from the same limitations as the other lamps above.
Price and Quality of Artificial Sunlight Lamps
Price and size generally don’t necessarily translate to larger or more powerful systems. More expensive lamps simply have more refinements. For instance, they may have downloadable apps so you can customize your therapy session. Others may be cordless or have inbuilt timers. But they all typically max out at 10,000 lux.
When it comes to choosing your own model, it really is a matter of personal choice on whether you want more bells and whistles. They all give you the same output when switched on full. Many users are reporting that short 15-20 minute sessions are all they need to uplift their mood and feel a little more energetic.
The downside of SAD lamps is that they do need to be very close so you can benefit from the right amount of lux. The further away they are, the less lux you’ll receive, and therefore the lamp loses its purpose. One solution to this is to use Light Therapy Glasses that provide light directly to the eyes, and are portable.
PEGASI 2 SAD Light Therapy Glasses
Key Features at a Glance
- Portable light therapy glasses
- Stylish, futuristic look
- Provides the equivalent of 10,000 lux of light
- Uses light in the blue/green spectrum for SAD treatment
The PEGASI 2 is an interesting system. It uses specific wavelengths of blue/green light to alleviate depression and SAD symptoms. These wavelengths were discovered by NASA to be the equivalent of white light in treating SAD symptoms.
The PEGASI glasses are portable and futuristic looking. They’re easy to wear, and a single charge will last for 6 or so sessions. They are paired to a phone app to allow for performance tracking.
Many find that these glasses solve the problems associated with stationary SAD/Happy lamps, and allow you to go about your morning routine as normal without needing to stay in one place for 20-30 minutes or more.
Homebrew SAD Lighting
Some SAD sufferers argue that 10,000 lux is not adequate. A more realistic figure would be 30,000 lux to treat the condition of SAD. You can only get this effect if you buy more than one lamp.
There are many with this condition who have designed their own lamps. How successful they are would be hard to measure if they are useful for SAD treatment.
Bulbs for Self-made SAD Lighting
Is it possible to make your own SAD lighting unit?
Though you should not attempt to make an electrical lamp unless you are qualified and knowledgeable of the current electrical standards and regulations. However, you may want to replace the bulb fittings in a lamp you already own. If you decide to do this, there are a few options on which type of bulb to try.
Here are a few tips:
Can you Use Grow Light Bulbs?
Daylight bulbs, such as the ones used in grow lights. Let’s look at a Ceramic Metal Halide (CMH) bulb for an example. The problem is while this bulb does give off enough lux, it also gives off UV rays. That’s great for the plants but not so good for humans. Too much UV rays can cause skin cancer, as in a tanning bed.
Needless to say, using daylight bulbs is not an effective way to about treating SAD.
Result: Not recommended.
Can you use incandescent bulbs?
If you were to use incandescent bulbs, you’d need around 7 x 130w to get around 11,000 lumens. Again, this would not be very effective for SAD lights because they get very hot.
Result: Not recommended.
Can you use Fluorescent Tubes?
Fluorescent tubes could be used as a SAD therapy lamp. You’d need around 7 x 23w for an effective lux output. At 1600lux per bulb, this totals around 11,200 lumens. Fluorescent bulbs are energy efficient to run and don’t get hot. However, having 7 strip lights in one room doesn’t sound very sensible.
Result: Not recommended.
Recommended Bulbs for DIY SAD Lamps
You might want to consider an LED corn bulb. They are energy efficient to run and a 500w bulb gives off 5,500 luX. You’d need at least three to make it work.
- SUPER BRIGHT-- 4000lm output and 5000K daylight...
- ENERGY EFFICIENT-- Cut down your electricity bill...
- EASY INSTALLATION-- Connect directly into medium...
- HEALTHY LIGHT-- No flicker and comfortable...
- CERTIFIED QUALITY-- Isolated built-in power supply...
Corn bulbs come in all shapes and sizes, as you can see with this cone-shaped spotlight. This one gives off around 4000 lux so you’re still going to need quite a few on the go at once. But at least they’re quite small.
Our final suggestion is to use a few good quality LED strip lights. These work out at around 450 lux per foot. A 3ft one at 45w would give out around 3,000 lux each. So you’re going to need at least 4 strip lights.
As you can see, it takes quite a few bulbs to build up the lux output required for the lighting to be effective as a SAD therapy lamp.
Do Artificial Sunlight lamps work?
A therapy session should be for around 20-30 minutes. Though some users report that they spend around an hour per session, with their lamps.
This exposure is most effective early in the morning.
For these to work well, you need to get your exposure close to your face. The further away it is, the less lux you will receive, which will prolong your session.
It doesn’t seem to make much sense to pay extra for a model with various settings. If you’re using your SAD lamp for light therapy, you need to have it set to its maximum level during your exposure time.
When looking to buy a SAD light therapy lamp, the key characteristic to look for is a minimum of 10,000 lux. Don’t go for less unless you’re going to run more than one lamp at a time.
Artificial Sunlight Lamps can help alleviate depression if used correctly. If you have a lifestyle that allows you to sit in one spot for 20-30 minutes each morning for the stationary Happy Light to do its thing, many of these lights will work for you.
If not, you may want to investigate light therapy glasses like the PEGASI 2 mentioned above. These are more in tune with our busy, modern lifestyle, and maybe easier to fit into your day.
Regardless, do your best to get as much natural light as you can during the winter, as this is critical.