We’ve got some bad news: Winter’s not over. And for many people, the dark, chilly days bring a sluggishness that can’t be shaken. Around 10 to 20 percent of Americans have a mild type of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression that begins in late fall and usually ceases come springtime. According to Cleveland Clinic, SAD symptoms can include irritability, fatigue, overeating, lack of joy and trouble concentrating.
Studies suggest that people who experience SAD have low levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating energy, appetite, mood, sleep and libido. Living with fewer hours of daylight can disrupt your circadian rhythm, the internal clock that alters the release of serotonin in your body and dictates alertness, appetite, sleep and other functions.
Balance Your Body’s Clock
“Light therapy could help roughly 50 percent of people who have SAD.”
The good news? A light box could help you turn your frown upside down. Studies indicate that bright light therapy could help roughly 50 percent of people who have SAD. Researchers hypothesize that, in lieu of natural sunlight, a light box can reset the body’s circadian rhythms by influencing the hormone melatonin, which makes us fall and stay asleep at night.
Unlike tanning bed lamps, light boxes are designed to recreate the visible outdoor light (not the dangerous UV rays) you’d normally enjoy during non-winter seasons. The boxes are much stronger than your average lamp because they deliver a higher amount of lux, a measurement of illumination intensity. On a bright, sunny day, it is estimated that you’d receive roughly 50,000 lux of sunlight. In contrast, most offices have between 100 to 1,000 lux of light.
Many health care providers and SAD experts recommend choosing light boxes that offers 10,000 lux of illumination and using your device for around 30 minutes in the morning. The lower the lux, the longer you’ll need to use a light box for the desired effect. While the lights are safe for general use, side effects can include headache or minor eye strain if you don’t position your model the correct distance — which will be specified in the device’s instructions — from your eyes. And be aware: Soaking up light too late in the day can cause your body to stay awake past bedtime. If you have bipolar disorder, be sure to discuss light therapy with a licensed expert because boxes have the potential to trigger mania.
A Brighter Mood
“We’d much rather have people try the lights than try medication.”
At the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, students can sign up to try out portable 10,000 lux light boxes for two weeks at a time. “It’s dark, it’s cold and it’s midterms [season],” says Jeri Rockett, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services, who notes that the sun is now setting at around 4:30 pm in St. Paul. The university’s five portable units are consistently on loan from October through March, and Dr. Rockett estimates up to 60 students used the boxes last year.
“We’d much rather have people try the lights than try medication,” say Dr. Rockett. “Antidepressants may help with [symptoms], but the real problem [with SAD] is lack of sunlight.” At Macalester College, also located in St. Paul, MN, the five rental light boxes that debuted last year at the Health and Wellness Center are also constantly on loan.
“We advise [students] to start with 15 minute sessions and work up to as long as 30 minute sessions,” says Ted Rueff, Licensed Psychologist, Associate Director of Counseling Services, who recommends using 10,000 lux boxes daily to experience a mood lift. “The people who don’t tend to benefit are those who are dabblers, who use it twice a week,” he says.
If students find relief, they are encouraged to purchase their own boxes, which can cost up to $500. Luckily, many insurance companies will reimburse you for your light box because the devices are considered to be durable medical equipment (DME), a label that also applies to apparatus like wheelchairs, insulin pumps, prosthetic devices and more.
5 Light Boxes for Beating Seasonal Affective Disorder
It’s time to flip a switch on winter blahs! To overcome lethargic, dark days, look for a box that emits at least 10,000 lux at a distance (10 to 30 inches) that works for your lifestyle. It may take some trial and error to find the correct session length and lux that works for you, but you could experience benefits in just several days. Click through to find the perfect companion to brighten your mood until spring.
Only two inches in depth, this thin energy lamp by Verilux won’t take up too much space on your office desk. It emits 10,000 lux when placed 10 inches away, and has a tilting base so you can direct soft light where needed. Don’t need the brightest setting all the time? Swap the “high energy” lens for the “comfort lens,” which allows just 5,000 lux to pass through the light. ($100; verilux.com)
Not tied to your desk all day? Battle the winter blues while you’re doing chores around the house with this wireless and wearable light. The rechargeable green-blue spectrum light adheres to a visor, so the light shines down on your eyes just like regular sunshine. Use the higher 12,000 lux setting for shorter sessions and the lower setting (8,000 lux) for longer ones. The light automatically shuts off after 30 minutes, so there’s no need for you to keep an eye on the time. ($149; feelbrightlight.com)
The compact design of this Lightphoria model makes it ideal to take with you when you travel. (It even comes with a Euro-friendly adapter.) Select between three intensity levels (5,000, 8,000 and 10,000 lux) depending on your session length. You can also set the light to automatically turn off after 15, 30 or 45 minutes. ($70; sadlight-therapy.com)
At a whopping 13 by 24 inches and 10 pounds, the NorthStar 10,000 is like having your own personal sun. The size advantage? You can place it 24 inches away from you and still reap the benefits of 10,000 lux. Using the sturdy carrying handle, prop the lamp horizontally or vertically and rubber nubs will hold it in place. You can also mount it on a wall if desired. ($299; alaskanorthernlights.com)
The stylish, tablet-sized Lightpad is best for people who want a hit of brightness — but prefer the source to be discrete. At 25 inches away, it will still deliver 10,000 lux. Since it has LED lights instead of glass bulbs, it weighs in at just four pounds. An infinitely adjustable stand means you can swivel it to just the right angle. ($199; auroralightsolutions.com)
If you struggle with serious and continuous depressive symptoms, be sure to reach out to a healthcare provider to discuss your condition. For additional information on seasonal depression, head to the National Institute of Mental Health.
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Originally posted December 2014. Updated February 2018 and December 2020.