Light Therapy & The Best SAD Lamps to Boost Your Seasonal Depression
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Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression characterized by an uptick in symptoms after periods of seasonal transition. The majority of people diagnosed with SAD experience the highest levels of depressive symptoms during the fall and winter. SAD is strongly linked to natural light exposure. The circadian clock, a biological timekeeper that regulates mood and sleep, relies on natural light to function properly. As a result, people with SAD experience low points when daylight is scarce.
There are several ways to treat SAD, including prescribed medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. However, light therapy (also known as phototherapy) has proven most effective for many people with this disorder. Light therapy involves a device known as a light therapy box, which emits high concentrations of bright, artificial light that can substitute for natural light; when used correctly, light therapy boxes can improve circadian cycles and alleviate symptoms for people with SAD.
This guide will discuss the causes and effects of SAD and benefits of light therapy, as well as buying considerations and light therapy box recommendations. Below you will find our picks for the best light therapy boxes sold today (scroll down to find profiles for each of these devices). Our choices are based on verified customer and owner experiences, as well as intensive product research and analysis.
38 light therapy boxes considered –– 75 hours of research –– 6 sleep experts consulted
What You Need to Know about Seasonal Affective Disorder and Light Therapy
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression that is typically triggered by seasonal changes. Most people with SAD experience the strongest symptoms during the fall and winter months, when natural sunlight declines. In most cases, SAD symptoms will gradually intensify as the triggering seasons progress and taper off once they come to an end – though these symptoms may worsen year after year.
SAD is often linked to sleep disruption. The circadian clock that controls sleep cycles in humans is largely influenced by exposure to sunlight; decreases in natural light that occur during the fall and winter can disrupt circadian rhythm and hinder the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates feelings of sleepiness and wakefulness.
For these reasons, light therapy can be highly beneficial to people with SAD who experience sleep problems. Light therapy boxes are bedside devices that mimic natural sunlight; most sleepers find that 30 minutes of exposure every morning during darker months can improve their mood and alleviate SAD symptoms.
Read on for more information about how SAD is diagnosed and treated, as well as a detailed description of how light therapy works.
What Causes Sleep Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal affective disorder is considered a type of depression, rather than a distinct mental health disorder. The majority of people with SAD experience the strongest symptoms during fall and winter, though a small contingent experience the symptoms during the spring and summer months.
It is important to note that many people experience mood changes during seasonal transitions. However, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, there is a clear distinction between these common mood changes and SAD. Read on to learn more about causes, risk factors, symptoms, and treatment options.
Though the exact cause(s) of SAD have not been officially recognized, the disorder usually occurs alongside the following factors:
Because sunlight controls the circadian clock, lack of exposure to natural light can disrupt circadian rhythm and lead to feelings of depression, as well as sleep problems.
Decreased serotonin levels
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that controls and regulates changes in mood. People with SAD tend to use up more serotonin during the months that trigger their symptoms; as a result, they often experience negative mood changes.
Natural light facilitates the production of the hormone melatonin, which makes people feel sleepy at night (when light is minimal) and more awake in the morning. Melatonin production is amplified during the fall and winter, when the days are shorter and natural light is scarce. This overproduction can cause people to feel more tired and groggy during the day.
Vitamin D deficiency
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, magnesium, and other nutrients, and also helps balance serotonin levels. Humans receive most of their Vitamin D from a synthesis process that depends on natural light. When natural light decreases, less Vitamin D is synthesized; this often affects serotonin levels, which in turn can cause one’s mood to drop.
Additionally, medical experts have pinpointed the following risk factors for SAD:
Depression or bipolar disorder diagnosis: Those who have been diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder may experience intensified symptoms during specific seasons, typically fall and winter or spring and summer.
Family history: People are likelier to be diagnosed with SAD if their family has a history of the disorder or other types of clinical depression.
Age: Children, teens, and younger adults constitute the largest contingent of those diagnosed with SAD.
Sex: According to the NIMH, women are four times likelier to be diagnosed with SAD than men.
Geographical location: Those who live further from the equator in places where seasonal changes are more prominent are more susceptible to SAD than those who reside in warm, tropical places with less distinct seasonal transitions. For example, the NIMH notes that 9% of New Englanders experience SAD symptoms, compared to 1% of Floridians.
Common SAD Symptoms
In order to be diagnosed with SAD, individuals must meet the criteria for major depression during distinct seasons for at least two years. These symptoms of major depression include:
Feelings of depression that persist throughout the day, every or almost every day
Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, sluggishness, and/or agitation
Waning interest in preferred activities
Sleep onset and/or maintenance problems
Changes in appetite or weight loss and/or gain
Problems focusing or concentrating
Additionally, the NIMH has identified the following symptoms that are specific to fall/winter-onset SAD and spring/summer-onset SAD:
Fall/Winter-Onset SAD Symptoms
Feelings of low energy
Hypersomnia (excessive sleeping)
Overeating and weight gain
Spring/Summer-Onset SAD Symptoms
Feelings of agitation, anxiety, and restlessness
Lack of appetite and weight loss
SAD Treatment Options
If untreated, SAD can lead to complications for those who experience symptoms. These may include social withdrawal, problems at school or work, feelings of anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Early intervention is key.
The diagnostic process for SAD requires a comprehensive evaluation from a physician or mental health professional. This evaluation typically includes:
A full physical exam
Lab tests, including a blood count and thyroid evaluation
Psychological evaluation that focuses on depressive symptoms
Based on the outcome of this evaluation, the care provider may administer an SAD diagnosis using criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Once this diagnosis has been made, the doctor or mental health professional may give the following treatment recommendations:
Medication: In most cases, people with SAD are prescribed a class of antidepressants known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). If first-line SSRIs prove ineffective, the antidepressant known as bupropion may be prescribed. These medications are not available over the counter and people with SAD should never take them without a prescription.
Vitamin D supplementation: Results have been mixed regarding the effectiveness of Vitamin D supplements. Some people with SAD find these supplements alleviate their symptoms, while others experience little to no change. In any case, these supplements are almost never used as a first-line treatment.
Psychotherapy: The form of psychotherapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effective in addressing SAD and alleviating symptoms of the disorder. CBT focuses on identifying negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones, as well as defining pleasurable activities and seeking them out during SAD-triggering months (a process known as behavior activation).
Mind-body techniques: According to the Mayo Clinic, mind-body connection exercises may help people with SAD. These include meditation, yoga, tai chi, music/art therapy, and guided imagery.
While these treatment options may be effective for people with SAD, light therapy has been the primary strategy for treating SAD for decades. Next, we’ll take a closer look at light therapy and discuss how it benefits those with SAD and other health problems and mental health disorders.
How Does Light Therapy Help People with SAD?
Light therapy – also known as phototherapy or bright light therapy – is based on the idea that artificial light can, in certain settings, substitute for natural light during darker periods of the year. This form of therapy is delivered using a device known as a light therapy box. People with SAD typically sit near the light box each morning during the fall and winter months in order to receive an adequate amount of light exposure.
Every person with SAD is different in terms of ideal light therapy box settings. However, the Mayo Clinic provides the following guidelines for selecting the right device and using it properly.
Light exposure: Studies have found that exposure to 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light is most effective; this amount is roughly 20 times greater than conventional indoor lighting. Bare minimum, the device should emit at least 2,500 lux, which is roughly equivalent to the sky on an overcast day.
Color of light: This may vary from person to person, but most have found that white light is the most effective option.
Duration of use: Most people with SAD find that sitting in front of a light therapy box every morning for 20 to 60 minutes is most effective.
Time of day: Light therapy boxes are generally most effective when used within one hour of waking up.
Distance: Light therapy box users should position themselves in such a way that their face is 16 to 24 inches from the device. Users should keep their eyes open but never stare directly into the light.
Ultraviolet light filtration: Ultraviolet (UV) light is harmful to humans. The best light therapy boxes will filter out most UV light.
Under the right conditions, light therapy can improve circadian rhythm, boost serotonin levels, and help regulate melatonin production – all of which may alleviate symptoms of SAD and help people with the disorder sleep better. In some cases, light therapy can replace medication and other alternative treatments for SAD – but for many, a combination of light therapy and medication is most effective.
Additional Benefits of Light Therapy
The benefits of light therapy are not limited to those with SAD. This form of therapy has proven effective at alleviating symptoms for the following sleep disorders, as well. To read more about these disorders, please click the links found in the card headings.
This disorder is characterized by early bedtimes and arousal in the middle of the night; it is essentially the polar opposite of delayed sleep-wake phase disorder. Most people with this disorder go to bed between 6pm and 9pm, and will awaken between 2am and 5am. For advanced sleep-wake disorder, using a light therapy box in the evening – rather than the morning – is usually most effective.
Irregular sleep-wake rhythm disorder is characterized by sleep patterns that do not coincide with typical circadian rhythms. People with this disorder frequently nap for long periods during the day and experience deep sleep at abnormal times during the night. Those with irregular sleep-wake rhythm disorder typically find that using a light therapy box in the mornings and avoiding light therapy in the evenings is the best way to correct their irregular sleep patterns.
This condition typically affects people who work late at night and sleep during the day; despite getting eight hours of sleep or more, daytime light exposure can disrupt their circadian processes. Shift work disorder has been linked to poor work performance, mood swings, and a higher risk of being involved in an accident. Regardless of the specific time of day when night workers go to bed and get up, light therapy tends to be most effective when they first wake up; dim light therapy before bedtime may also help.
People with non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder follow sleep patterns that do not align with the typical 24-hour day; as a result, they may not feel tired at night and/or wakeful in the morning. Timed light therapy that coincides with normal sleep-wake cycles may be used to correct this disorder.
People experience jet lag when they travel to different time zones over a relatively short period of time (typically by airplane). The condition causes them to feel tired and wakeful at abnormal times because their bodies have become accustomed to different geographical areas. Jet lag initially manifests immediately after the individual reaches their destination, and will re-manifest after they return home; jet lag may last as little as one or two days up to one week per episode, depending on the distance traveled. Light therapy delivered at normal sleep-wake times for the user’s current location can help correct jet lag, though the condition is never permanent (even after long getaways).
Our Editor’s Pick is the Aura Day Light Therapy Lamp, a compact light therapy box loaded with helpful features. The adjustable lux dial allows users to adjust the brightness anywhere from 3,500 to 10,000 lux of white light. The lamp also has a built-in timer that ranges from 10 to 60 minutes; when the countdown is complete, the lamp will automatically shut off – preventing users from overexposure if they lose track of time.
The Aura Day Light Therapy Lamp can be adjusted to 70 or 85 degrees for ideal positioning. It can be mounted on walls, as well. And due to its compact size and light frame (3.4 pounds), it will fit on most bedside surfaces. The lamp is designed with a sophisticated filtration system that prevents UV rays from being emitted.
The Aura Day Light Therapy Lamp is currently available for roughly $100, making it a good option for shoppers with bigger budgets. This product is backed by a two-year warranty.
Sleepers whose preferred light therapy exposure and duration preferences fluctuate from day to day
The HappyLight Deluxe from Verilux is a flexible, effective light therapy box that provides anywhere from 2,500 to 10,000 lux of bright white light using a 36-watt bulb. Users can select a duration anywhere from 10 to 60 minutes, and the device can be adjusted to multiple angles for optimal positioning. It weighs slightly less than 10 pounds and comes with a fold out base for added stability.
The HappyLight Deluxe filters out all UV rays, keeping users safe from harmful exposure. Unlike many other light therapy boxes (which can produce buzzing sounds), this device is also virtually quiet when in use. The product has been tested for eye safety, as well.
The HappyLight Deluxe has a higher-than-average price-point compared to other light therapy boxes; it is currently available for roughly $150. Amazon Prime members qualify for free shipping. Verilux backs the HappyLight Deluxe with a one-year warranty.
Sleepers whose preferred light therapy exposure and duration preferences fluctuate from day to day
The Carex Day-Light Therapy Lamp offers two light settings: a 7,000 lux ‘task lighting’ setting for moderate light therapy using two 36-watt bulbs; and 10,000 lux ‘light therapy’ setting for maximum brightness using three 36-watt bulbs. Its timer is programmable in five-minute increments anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, making it suitable for most people with SAD and other sleep disorders that can be treated with light exposure.
Mimicking the look of a standard desk lamp, this device can be adjusted for angle and height (25″ to 28″) for optimal positioning. The lamp weighs roughly 9.5 pounds. The Day-Light Therapy Lamp also has a filtration system that blocks more than 99% of UV rays.
The Carex Day-Light Therapy Lamp is widely sold for $110 or less. The product is backed by a five-year warranty, which is much longer than average compared to the warranties of other light therapy devices.
Sleepers whose preferred light therapy duration preferences fluctuate from day to day
People who enjoy moderate light therapy while they work
Our Best Value pick is the NatureBright SunTouch Plus Light, a light therapy box that is widely available for $40. However, this device offers the same effective light therapy as many competing models with higher price-points. The SunTouch Plus Light emits the recommended 10,000 lux of bright white light for people with SAD. Its timer is programmable for 15-, 30-, 45-, and 60-minute durations, as well.
Additionally, this device has a built-in negative ionizer. Negative ions are odorless particles that form naturally in the air; they are most prominent in natural surroundings and after rainfall, and have been linked to improved moods. The SunTouch Plus Light also filters out most UV rays. The device has received recommendations from the Columbia Department of Psychiatry and the New York State Psychiatry Institute.
Amazon Prime members qualify for free shipping when they order the NatureBright SunTouch Plus Light. This device is backed by a one-year warranty.
Sleepers whose preferred light therapy duration preferences fluctuate from day to day
Those who prefer a fixed 10,000-lux setting
People who enjoy being outdoors (negative ions can mimic this experience)
Buying Considerations for Light Therapy Box Shoppers
When shopping for a new light therapy box and comparing different brands and models, here are a few important factors to take into account:
How much does the light therapy box cost?
Light therapy boxes typically cost at least $100, and some models may be priced at $150 or higher. Some lower-cost boxes are available, as well, but most do not come with the same features as higher-end models. Determine a feasible budget based on your light therapy needs before settling on one box.
What is the lux output?
Virtually all light therapy boxes will emit 10,000 lux of bright light, which is the recommended exposure setting for people with SAD and other light-affected sleep disorders. At the low end, boxes may emit 2,500 to 3,500 lux. General rule of thumb: the higher the price of the box, the wider the lux range. Cheaper models may have a fixed 10,000-lux setting.
What durations are available with the built-in timer?
Standard light therapy boxes feature timers with 30- and 60-minute durations. Some models offer a wider range, such as 10 to 60 minutes that can be adjusted to five- or 10-minute increments. Generally speaking, a range of at least 20 to 60 minutes is considered optimal.
Does the machine automatically shut off?
Automatic shut-off functions can be useful for users who tend to lose track of time while receiving light therapy. However, most light therapy boxes do not include this feature.
Does the machine filter out all UV rays?
Some light therapy boxes – typically higher-end models – filter out virtually all UV rays. Others come close, filtering out 99% or more. Both options are considered reasonably safe, but users who prefer 100% UV-free therapy should opt for the former.
Can the box's height and/or angle be adjusted?
Light therapy boxes can often be tilted forward and back, resulting in different angles; some models have adjustable height as well. On the other hand, many boxes offer one fixed position that requires the user to position themselves accordingly.
Does the box come with a warranty?
Most light therapy boxes come with a warranty ranging between one and five years of coverage. These warranties generally cover the bulbs and heating mechanisms. However, select boxes do not come with any sort of warranty coverage.