Most call it the “winter blues.” But if you’re someone who feels depression set in during the winter months when we get less sunlight, it may feel like more than just some blues.
NIH—National Institute of Mental Health “Seasonal Affective Disorder” View Source —aptly known as SAD—is a diagnosable type of depression that is characterized by mood changes that coincide with the changing seasons.
When the seasons change, some turn to SAD lamps, an indoor option for those who can’t get time in the sun. SAD lamps are an over-the-counter method to improve symptoms of SAD—and they’ve long been recommended as American Psychiatric Association “Commercially Available Phototherapy Devices for Treatment of Depression: Physical Characteristics of Emitted Light” View Source (both alone and in conjunction with antidepressants) for SAD. But do the SAD lamps work for seasonal affective disorder? We looked into it to find out.
What Is SAD?
SAD is more likely to occur during the fall and winter months and resolve in the spring and summer, but it can also occur the other way around. Most prevalent in areas that don’t get a lot of sunlight, SAD is thought to be linked to certain chemicals and hormones that help regulate our bodies, signaling when it’s time to be awake and when it’s time to head to bed and get some shut-eye.
“Seasonal depression is just as treatable as it is real”, says Kelly McKenna, LCSW.
What Is a SAD Light Therapy Lamp?
Frontiers in Psychiatry “Bright Light as a Personalized Precision Treatment of Mood Disorders” View Source , a SAD light therapy lamp is often referred to as a light box. While it has a few unique distinctions, it follows specific parameters. PubMed Central “Bright Light Therapy: Seasonal Affective Disorder and Beyond” View Source that a SAD lamp is a light box using fluorescent lights covered by a Thomas Jefferson University “Light ther Light therapy for seasonal aff y for seasonal affective disor e disorder with blue narr der with blue narrowband light-emitting diodes (LEDs)” View Source , which is there to filter out any UV light. Additionally, SAD lamps should give off 10,000 lux—lux measures how much light falls on an area—when the user is sitting a certain distance from the lamp (your specific lamp should tell you what that range is). The intent is to mimic sunlight to trigger your brain into making the chemicals and hormones that help your sleep-wake pattern at the correct interval and time of day.
These therapy lamps are different from ultraviolet (UV) light treatment or PubMed Central “Management of atopic dermatitis: safety and efficacy of phototherapy” View Source , which may be used to treat certain skin conditions. SAD lamps produce a minimal amount of UV light compared to these light sources, according to Teralyn Sell, PhD, LPC, a psychotherapist and brain health expert based in Wisconsin.
This is an important distinction to make and is why PubMed Central “Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health” View Source , which boosts Vitamin D, is the first recommendation for someone experiencing SAD. Low levels of Vitamin D ScienceDirect “Effects of vitamin D supplementation on depression and some involved neurotransmitters” View Source with general depression and Scientific Reports “Relationship between Sleep Duration, Sun Exposure, and Serum 25-Hydroxyvitamin D Status: A Cross-sectional Study” View Source sleep duration. Depending on your age, skin tone, and health, most experts recommend 5 to 30 minutes of sun exposure a day.
“Soak in sunlight and when sunlight isn’t available, [then] use a SAD lamp,” adds Dr. Sell.
If you plan to be out in direct sunlight for an extended period of time, make sure to apply sunscreen. (You don’t need to use it with a SAD lamp, as it doesn’t emit UV light.) PubMed.gov “The effect of sunscreen on vitamin D: a review” View Source there is no link between sunscreen use and Vitamin D deficiency, so you’ll still get the vitamin-boosting benefits (along with protection from skin cancer).
Do SAD Lamps Work?
While not equivalent to natural light, that doesn’t mean that SAD lamps don’t work. In fact, this form of light therapy University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign “The Efficacy of Light Therapy in the Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials” View Source .
“Research shows that daily exposure to light therapy has been proven effective and is now recognized as a first-line therapeutic modality for the treatment of SAD, as well as other disorders that include symptoms of circadian rhythm disruption [including] bipolar disorder, ADHD, [and] depression,” confirms Dr. Sell.
SAD lamps need to be used consistently to see results. JAMA Psychiatry “Bright Light Treatment of Winter Depression: A Placebo-Controlled Trial” View Source found that antidepressant effects can take up to three weeks to appear—in the meantime, they can still boost your mood. But how? Researchers think there are a few reasons for this. One is serotonin, which Dr. Sell calls the “happy chemical.”
In SAD specifically, serotonin is important because it is PubMed Central “Circadian Regulation of Pineal Gland Rhythmicity” View Source (our body’s sleep and wake cycle). Serotonin levels are low when we wake up, and natural light helps the brain start making more of the chemical. Serotonin is also needed to create melatonin, the hormone that helps us get to sleep. Translational Psychiatry “Circadian rhythm disruption and mental health” View Source suggests that serotonin may be at its lowest levels in the winter months when SAD is most likely to occur, which is where light therapy comes in. This, in turn, may help with some symptoms of depression.
For people Translational Psychiatry “Circadian rhythm disruption and mental health” View Source —such as sunlight—to help regulate their circadian rhythm, it’s not just their sleep that is affected; their behavior can become unregulated, too. This is why experts often recommend that people use SAD lamps in the morning hours to mirror the way natural light begins the wake cycle and starts serotonin production.
Do SAD Lamps Actually Provide Vitamin D?
While there is a lot that SAD lamps can do, creating Vitamin D isn’t one of them. This is because UVB rays are needed in order for the body to make Vitamin D and—as Dr. Sell explained—SAD lamps don’t use UV light.
Because Vitamin D is so important, Dr. Sell recommends getting levels checked in both the fall and spring, so you have a baseline marker. If your Vitamin D is low—and this is the case for Cleveland Clinic “Vitamin D Deficiency” View Source —she notes that you should get outside. (Remember, a SAD lamp isn’t a good replacement for the sun.) Otherwise, you can talk to your doctor about a supplement.
How Do You Use a SAD Lamp?
Before using a SAD lamp, follow any instructions provided by your doctor or therapist and read all its instructions. The PubMed Central “Bright Light Therapy: Seasonal Affective Disorder and Beyond” View Source is to use a SAD lamp that emits 10,000 lux for 30 minutes (ideally, in the morning) positioned at an angle of roughly 30 degrees from your gaze. “Sit with your lamp off to the side about 16 inches from your eyes [and] do not look directly into the lamp,” instructs Dr. Sell.
SAD lamp use can have some International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health ““Shedding Light on Light”: A Review on the Effects on Mental Health of Exposure to Optical Radiation” View Source , though they are often reported to be minimal and include:
- blurred vision,
- and nausea.
How to Shop for a SAD Lamp
Make sure to consult with a doctor or mental health professional to confirm that it’s a good option for you. From there, the most important thing to consider when shopping for a SAD lamp is how many lux it emits and that it provides limited UV rays. While called a light box, you don’t want a cube that is stationary; remember that it should have a stand or the ability to pivot so you can angle the light source from your direct gaze.
SAD Lamps To Try
Carex Day-Light Classic Plus Bright Light Therapy Lamp$119.99 at Amazon
This is consistently the top-rated SAD lamp in both professional and user reviews. The Carex Day-Light Classic Plus Light Therapy Lamp was created with the intention of following all SAD lamp recommendations. While it might seem large, this size is so that you can get the full 10,000 lux while sitting 12 to 14 inches away. The ability to angle the light downward—versus up like many other options—helps reduce glare and make it easier to avoid staring right at the light. This light also has two settings, so you can use it as a lamp when it isn’t switched to provide light therapy.
Verilux HappyLight$59.99 on Amazon
Don’t let “full-size” in the product name fool you. If you’re looking for a more affordable and compact SAD lamp, the Verilux HappyLight Full-Size is a good choice. This SAD lamp has adjustable brightness and emits10,000 lux, with instructions to have it no further than 24 inches away from your face. This SAD lamp can rotate both up and down so you can get preferred positioning and its small size makes it easy to travel with (or move around the house as needed).
When To Seek Help Beyond SAD Lamps
Of course, SAD lamps do have their limitations. If you are experiencing any thoughts of self harm or a mental health crisis, seek help from a qualified mental health provider. If you are in the United States, you can dial 988. “If you have negative thoughts about ending your life or not waking up in the morning this is a warning sign to get help immediately,” urges Dr. Sell. ‘If you are in danger please tell someone or head to your local emergency room.”
You can reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling 988 or chatting with a representative on its website. For general information on mental health and to locate treatment services in your area, call the SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
- Sell, Teralyn, PhD, LPC. A psychotherapist and brain health expert interviewed via email by Ashley Lauretta (October 2022)
- Description of seasonal affective disorder: Seasonal Affective Disorder (National Institute of Mental Health)
- SAD lamps as a treatment option for SAD: Commercially Available Phototherapy Devices for Treatment of Depression: Physical Characteristics of Emitted Light (Psychiatric Research and Clinical Practice, October 2019)
- Terminologies for SAD light therapy lamps: Bright Light as a Personalized Precision Treatment of Mood Disorders (Frontiers in Psychiatry, March 2019)
- Parameters of a SAD lamp: Bright Light Therapy: Seasonal Affective Disorder and Beyond (Einstein Journal of Biology and Medicine, 2017)
- Purpose of a diffusion screen: Light therapy for seasonal affective disorder with blue narrow-band light-emitting diodes (LEDs) (Marcus Institute of Integrative Health Faculty Papers, March 2006)
- Description of lux as a measurement: Science with a Smartphone: Measure Light with Lux (Scientific American, October 2019)
- Description of phototherapy: Management of atopic dermatitis: safety and efficacy of phototherapy (Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigative Dermatology, October 2015)
- Sunlight and Vitamin D production: Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health (Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2008)
- Sunscreen has no indicated effect on Vitamin D production: The effect of sunscreen on vitamin D: a review (British Journal of Dermatology, November 2019)
- Light therapy among choice SAD treatments: The Efficacy of Light Therapy in the Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials (Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, October 2019)
- Bright light treatment works as antidepressant after three weeks: Bright Light Treatment of Winter Depression (JAMA Psychiatry, October 1998)
- Serotonin and our circadian rhythm: Circadian Regulation of Pineal Gland Rhythmicity (Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology, February 2012)
- Serotonin levels in the winter months: Role of serotonin in seasonal affective disorder (European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences, 2013)
- Circadian rhythm and its effect on behavior: Circadian rhythm disruption and mental health (Translational Psychiatry, January 2020)
- Studies on when to use a SAD lamp: Light Therapy for Seasonal and Nonseasonal Depression: Efficacy, Protocol, Safety, and Side Effects (CNS Spectrums, September 2005)
- UVB rays and the creation of Vitamin D: Sun Protection and Vitamin D (The Skin Cancer Foundation, Mary 2018)
- Vitamin D levels and depression: Effects of vitamin D supplementation on depression and some involved neurotransmitters (Journal of Affective Disorders, May 2020)
- Vitamin D and its role in sleep duration: Relationship between Sleep Duration, Sun Exposure, and Serum 25-Hydroxyvitamin D Status: A Cross-sectional Study (Scientific Reports, March 2020)
- SAD lamp use recommendations: Bright Light Therapy: Seasonal Affective Disorder and Beyond (Einstein Journal of Biology and Medicine, 2017)
- SAD lamp side effects: “Shedding Light on Light”: A Review on the Effects on Mental Health of Exposure to Optical Radiation (International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, February 2021)
- Dial 988: 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline