Light Therapy & The Best SAD Lamps to Boost Your Seasonal Depression

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Quick Summary

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.

Best Light Therapy Boxes

Editor’s Pick – Aura Day Light Therapy Lamp

Runner-Up Pick – Verilux HappyLight Deluxe

Best Desktop Light Therapy Lamp – Carex Day-Light Therapy Lamp

Best Value Light Therapy Box – NatureBright SunTouch Plus Light

How We Decided

 

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:

Circadian disruption

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.

Melatonin overproduction

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
  • Suicidal thoughts

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
  • Social withdrawal
Spring/Summer-Onset SAD Symptoms
  • Feelings of agitation, anxiety, and restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Lack of appetite and weight loss
  • Violent episodes

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?

Studies have shown that light therapy can significantly improve SAD symptoms — and can be equally as effective as medication. For those looking for alternatives to medication, or just hoping for a straightforward solution, light therapy should be considered a strong contender to treat SAD.

Light therapy usually comes from a box or lamp that emits full-spectrum light similar to sunlight. This light helps emulate the amount of sunlight and full-spectrum rays that are missing during the more dreary seasons like fall and winter. Although many users feel the effect in a matter of days, some people will find it takes two weeks or more to really start feeling an improvement in symptoms and mood.

Use caution if you have bipolar disorder, conditions with skin sensitivity, or a condition that makes your eyes vulnerable to damage. Unlike prescription antidepressants, light therapy doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription, but it can have adverse effects on certain populations.

Additionally, using light therapy isn’t as simple as switching on a lamp and going about your day. There are several best practices that make light therapy more effective. As we’ll go over in the section below, people using a lamp to relieve symptoms of SAD should create a daily routine around using the lamp for the proper amount of time, at the right time of day, and in the optimal proximity.

How to Use a Light Therapy Box

Every person with SAD is different in terms of ideal light therapy box settings.

  • 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.

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.

Advanced Sleep-Wake Phase Disorder

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.

Read more about Advanced Sleep-Wake Phase Disorder.

Irregular Sleep-Wake Rhythm Disorder

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.

Read more about Irregular Sleep-Wake Rhythm Disorder.

Shift Work Sleep Disorder

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.

Read more about Shift Work Sleep Disorder.

Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder

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.

Read more about Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder.

Jet Lag

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).

Read more about Jet Lag.

Best Light Therapy Boxes – Tuck's Top 4 Picks

Aura Day Light Therapy Lamp – Editor's Pick

Highlights
  • 3,500 to 10,000 lux range
  • 10 to 60 minute timer
  • Adjustable angle and wall mountable
  • 2-year warranty

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.

Good for:

  • Sleepers whose preferred light therapy exposure and duration preferences fluctuate from day to day
  • Buyers who prefer UV-free light therapy boxes
  • Shoppers with bigger budgets

Verilux HappyLight Deluxe – Runner-Up Pick

Highlights
  • 2,500 to 10,000 lux
  • 10 to 60 minute timer
  • Adjustable angle
  • 1-year warranty

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.

Good for:

  • Sleepers whose preferred light therapy exposure and duration preferences fluctuate from day to day
  • Buyers who prefer UV-free light therapy boxes
  • Shoppers with bigger budgets

Carex Day-Light Therapy Lamp – Best Desktop Light Therapy Lamp

Highlights
  • 7,000 to 10,000 lux
  • 30 to 60 minute timer
  • Adjustable angle and height
  • 5-year warranty

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.

Good for:

  • Sleepers whose preferred light therapy duration preferences fluctuate from day to day
  • People who enjoy moderate light therapy while they work
  • Shoppers with bigger budgets

NatureBright SunTouch Plus Light – Best Value Light Therapy Box

Highlights
  • 10,000 lux
  • 15 to 60 minute timer
  • Non-adjustable
  • 1-year warranty

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.

Good for:

  • 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.

Alternative Types of Light Therapy

Natural Spectrum Light Bulbs

Also known as full spectrum fluorescent lighting (FSFL), this product is marketed as the more “natural” alternative to traditional SAD lamps. Natural spectrum lights are made to emulate the full electromagnetic spectrum of light. These lamps can come in many forms, finishes, sizes, wattages, and voltages.

In the early 2000’s, many companies made scientific claims that FSFLs were able to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder, slow aging of the retina, and even reduce the chance of skin cancer. Unfortunately, it appears that full spectrum lights are not all they’re cracked up to be, and so far have no real support or rooting in science.

One study conducted over a 50 year period found that this type of full-spectrum lighting hasn’t shown any dramatic effects on human behavior or health. So far, other studies have shown that it takes a light emission of at least 1000 lux to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder.

However, the natural spectrum light bulbs currently on the market don’t have this same level of powerful emission. Their pleasant light may allow the user to experience better visual acuity or less tiredness, but those effects are not enough to effectively treat SAD.

Dawn Simulators

Unlike a regular SAD lamp that is turned on for a short period of time during the day, dawn simulators can help you wake gently from your sleep. This acts as a sort of planned alarm clock, but the gradual increase of light, instead of noise, wakes you from your slumber. Most also have a sunsetting feature that allows you to fall asleep to a gradual light decrease.

Dawn simulators, sometimes known as “wake up lights”, have shown many benefits in their own right. These devices may allow you to sleep better and wake up more naturally in the morning. Because one symptom of SAD is difficulty sleeping, people have shown positive clinical responses to dawn simulators. However, in terms of treating SAD, dawn simulators have more mixed results.

That’s because the benefits they offer are somewhat differentiated from clinically-approved SAD usage. SAD lamps are still the most effective treatment for seasonal affective disorder. For best possible usage, you can choose to combine the two: waking up to a dawn simulator and using a SAD lamp treatment about half an hour later has been shown as the most effective SAD treatment.

Blue Light

Blue light has the highest amount of energy in the visible light spectrum. While blue light has traditionally come from the sun, we now consume it all the time in the form of electronics: think computers, smartphones, tablets, and TVs.

Traditional SAD lamps use bright white-light treatment instead of narrow-band blue-light treatment. However, multiple studies have found that the use of blue light treatment is equally effective in treatment for SAD as white light. Blue light to treat SAD is administered through a light-emitting diode (LED) lamp that emits narrow-spectrum blue light.

Of course, this shouldn’t be mixed up with the wrong kinds of blue light exposure right before bed. Exposure to blue light late at night suppresses the secretion of melatonin, which may influence your circadian rhythms and overall ability to sleep. Said in another way: make sure you’re getting the right kind of blue light earlier in the day, and not later.

Red Light Therapy

Red lights have the longest wavelength on the light spectrum. Red light therapy has all kinds of different names, such as:

  • Biostimulation
  • Photonic stimulation
  • Soft laser therapy
  • Low level light therapy
  • Low-power laser therapy

Red light’s efficacy in a wide variety of applications (including treating SAD) has often been inconclusive. When compared to other 10,000 lux visible-spectrum studies, blue-light therapy proved superior to red-light therapy. In fact, even green light therapy has been found more effective than red light for this purpose. That’s because red light is not as successful in mediating photoreceptors in the eye that promote an antidepressant response.

Red light has gone through many studies in scientific vogue, from treatment for skin problems to helping grow plants in space. Some studies suggest that red light therapy may help promote skin healing, prevent recurring cold sores, relieve pain and inflammation, and even help with stiffness associated with rheumatoid arthritis. But for now, it’s best to take these hypotheses with a grain of salt, as findings remain inconclusive.

Overall, even though red light may seem interesting in helping with SAD, blue light and white light therapy have been proven equally more effective.

Light boxes are the best way for you to receive light therapy for SAD. Below, we’ll lead you through the best light boxes and why they work so well.

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