Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder: Light Therapy And Other Treatments

By Julia Thomas|Updated August 15, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a condition that causes people to have symptoms of depression during the winter season. They have low energy, feel worthless, can't concentrate, have little pleasure, and have strong cravings for sweet and high-carbohydrate foods. They may have trouble getting out of bed when their alarm clock goes off.

After a winter with these symptoms, they emerge in the spring happier, but out of shape and with damaged relationships. However, some treatments can help with seasonal affective disorder. Light therapy (also called phototherapy) using a light box is one of several options.

Could Seasonal Affective Disorder Be Impacting You?

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression which can occur in those with low VItamin D levels. Vitamin D deficiency typically occurs in the winter months, when people are less exposed to the natural light of the sun. 

People with SAD will generally have low energy levels, and may feel like they have jet lag. They may suffer from sleep disorders due to their circadian rhythms being disrupted from getting less sunlight and watching TV too close to bedtime.

People with SAD may also suffer from mood disorders such as bipolar disorder

What Is Light Therapy?

Light therapy is a treatment for medical and mental health conditions, including SAD. It’s usually delivered via a device known as a light box or SAD lamp. Light therapy boxes supply the light that people who have seasonal affective disorder need during the winter. 

The person sits in front of the light box for a specific amount of time each day to absorb a specific amount of light. For SAD, light therapy can be used alone or with other treatments.

What Is A Light Therapy Box?

A light therapy box for SAD is a device that provides a specific wavelength of light. It’s also known as a light therapy lamp, light box, “Seasonal Depression Lamp,” or “SAD lamp.” 

The light emitted from SAD lamps is perceived by your brain as sunlight, helping to alleviate symptoms of seasonal affective depression. This light is typically 10,000 lux, which researchers find is the amount of light best suited for treating seasonal depression. Light boxes will typically offer adjustable brightness settings, allowing the user to change the light intensity from 10,000 lux to 5,000 lux or other intensities as needed. 

Sometimes a SAD lamp may also double as an alarm clock, giving off maximum light intensity in the morning and tapering off as the day progresses. This can enhance the depression-fighting effects of SAD lamps by helping those suffering SAD establish morning routines.

What Is The Right Type Of Light?

Researchers typically recommend 10,000 lux light for treating SAD. Most light boxes are capable of this level of light intensity. The best light boxes will have a filter for UV light.

It's important to talk to a health care provider or medical professional and ask what they recommend in terms of the type of light and other factors in light therapy for SAD. 

Types Of Light Boxes

Several different research studies have explored which wavelength works best. For example, in one study, the researchers concluded that 607 microWcm2 blue light was more effective than dimmer red light for treating SAD.

The brightness of the light can be measured in lux as well. For reference, typical indoor lighting is rated at 100 lux, and a bright sunny day could be 50,000 lux or more. Another study found that short wavelength light of less than 2500 lux was effective for treating the seasonal affective disorder. In fact, the subjects' depression ratings decreased an average of 82%. A third study found that short-wavelength LED lights worked well at fewer lux than fluorescent lights.

Scientists are also exploring new types of SAD light therapy boxes. One idea is to use a light box that gradually increases the intensity from darkness until it reaches a sunrise effect at 300 lux. Another option is to use blue light to have a more powerful impact on the retina than white light.

However, Mayo Clinic and others suggest a full-spectrum light therapy box supplying light of 10,000 lux that filters out the UV light. The brighter the light is, the less time you'll need to use it.

Also, make sure you get a light box that's designed to use for seasonal affective disorder treatment instead of one that's made to treat skin disorders or other conditions. The UV filter is critical for SAD light therapy because, without it, eye damage can occur. This is one reason light therapy boxes made for skin disorders are harmful for use as SAD lights; the presence of UV is a key feature in helping with skin disorders. 

Other Factors

There are also other factors to consider when using light therapy boxes. You need to sit a specific distance away from the SAD light therapy box. The right time of day to do this is typically early in the morning when you first wake up. Your eyes must be open, but you can't look directly at the light box. And, you'll need to use the light therapy box for a specified amount of time each day.

What is the Best Light Therapy Lamp?

There are a variety of great SAD lamps and light boxes out there, making it difficult to choose one lamp over all the rest of the light therapy lamps. 

However, the best light therapy lamps will have some features in common, such as 10,000 lux light, a filter for UV light, and the ability to manage settings relating to light intensity and color temperature.

Here is a small list of the best light therapy lamps we’ve found in our research:

Verilux Happylight Luxe

Named the best budget light therapy lamp by the New York Times, the Verilux Happylight Luxe light box offers multiple color temperature settings and an automatic shutoff feature. It also provides 10,000 lux light, with adjustable brightness levels. It’s also compact and can easily fit into small spaces.

Northern Light Technologies Boxelite

The Northern Light Technologies Boxelite SAD lamp can emit up to 10,000 lux of light. It also features five different brightness settings. Two other features that set this light box lamp apart are its metal construction and quiet operation - no humming like with other SAD lamps. It can also be used as a reading light.

Philips Smartsleep

Not quite a typical SAD lamp but perhaps just as useful, the Philips Smartsleep uses light therapy to reset the user’s circadian rhythms, which can often be disrupted in the winter months. Disrupted sleep patterns can be quite common in the winter months, when people generally spend more time indoors, watching TV, using less energy, and getting less exposure to natural light than usual.

This light therapy lamp seeks to mimic the natural light given off by the sun, with its brightness levels gradually dimming throughout the day to simulate a natural sunset.

Unlike a traditional light box lamp, it also functions as an alarm clock, with its light intensity automatically set to max when your day begins, helping you to establish a morning routine. Most experts recommend using a sad lamp first thing in the morning, allowing you to get maximum benefit from its 10,000 lux light.

Carex Day Light Classic

Like the other SAD lamps on this list, the Carex Day Light Classic light box emits 10,000 lux light with adjustable brightness settings. It’s height-adjustable, making it a good floor lamp, and blocks UV light, mitigating the risk of skin cancer. The screen is 16” by 13”, making it one of the larger lamps on the market.

According to the manufacturers, what makes this SAD lamp truly stand out is that it's modeled after the best SAD lamps used by university researchers.

Northern Light Technologies Flamingo Bright Light-Therapy Floor Lamp

Rather than a traditional light box lamp, the Northern Light Technologies Flamingo Bright Light-Therapy Floor Lamp is a great choice for those who lack table space. Because it can double as a floor lamp, you can use it while sitting on the couch watching TV. 

Like the other SAD lamps on this list, it is capable of providing 10,000 lux light and has adjustable brightness settings.

Why Does Light Therapy Help?

Scientists haven't yet concluded why some people have seasonal affective disorder while others have no symptoms of depression during the winter. However, light does seem to be a factor. 

This has to do with the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which controls your circadian rhythms to signal to your brain whether it's night or day. When you use a seasonal depression light therapy box, the light activates the hypothalamus, restoring your normal circadian rhythms. When that happens, the depression typically lifts.

Side Effects

SAD light therapy has very few side effects. However, some people should not use it. It's best to talk to a professional to make sure it's right for you. Light therapy can bring on hypomania or mania for people with bipolar disorder. Also, people with diabetes or eye diseases may experience retinal damage.

Light therapy for depression might not be right for people with lupus, who may experience skin problems when using SAD light therapy. If you're taking medications or herbal supplements that increase your sensitivity to light, the side effects may be more severe. People with sensitivity to light may want to adjust the brightness settings downward to avoid.

Other mild and short-term side effects include:

  • Headache
  • Eyestrain
  • Nausea
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Agitation

Could Seasonal Affective Disorder Be Impacting You?

If you do have mild side effects, they may go away a few days after you begin treatment. You can also adjust your distance away from the light, the time of day you use it, or by taking breaks during sessions. The Mayo Clinic suggests that people with sensitive skin or eye conditions should speak with their doctor prior to beginning treatment. By working with a professional, you can fine-tune the therapy so that it works best for you.

What Does Science Say About UV Light Therapy Lamps?

The National Institute of Mental Health calls bright light therapy a “mainstay” for the treatment of SAD.

Peer-reviewed studies show that bright light therapy is an effective treatment for SAD symptoms. One paper found that exposure to the light of a light box or light therapy lamp yielded improvement in SAD symptoms within a time frame of as little as 20 minutes.

Aside from being used to treat SAD, research indicates light therapy lamps can also be used to treat mood disorders such as bipolar disorder.

In fact, a study supported by the National Institute of Mental Health found that UV light from a light therapy lamp can help treat bipolar disorder and other types of depression, as well as eating disorders and even Adult ADHD.

Note: there is some concern that SAD lamps damage eyes or skin. However, this concern is scientifically.unfounded.

Reasons To Choose Light Therapy For SAD

Aside from the fact that light therapy can help with seasonal affective disorder, why might you want to choose it? 

After all, there are many types of treatment for depression. Here are some reasons to consider:

Doctors often recommend it.

  • Light boxes are at least as effective as antidepressant medication.
  • Light box therapy is relatively safe for most people and has only a few side effects.
  • A light box is safer for a pregnant woman than medications.
  • The light from a light box may boost the effectiveness of an antidepressant you're taking.

Combining light therapy with mental health counseling may improve your condition.

Other Types of Treatment For Seasonal Affective Disorder

Besides light therapy, SAD can be helped with other treatments. Sometimes, more than one treatment may be used for maximum effect and to reduce treatment time. The other most common treatments used are medications, psychotherapy, mind-body techniques, and Vitamin D supplements.

Here are some other treatments that can be used in conjunction with SAD lamp light boxes:

Medications

For people with severe symptoms of SAD and major depressive disorder, antidepressant medication can be a helpful treatment. Often, extended-release bupropion is used, and this treatment has been approved for the treatment of SAD. However, other antidepressants, called SSRIs, are also used. 

They include:

  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • Citalopram (Celexa)
  • Escitalopram (Lexapro)
  • Paroxetine (Paxil)
  • Sertraline (Zoloft)

Many doctors prefer to prescribe bupropion because it has fewer side effects than SSRIs. The SSRIs can cause weight gain and loss of sex drive, for example. Your doctor or psychiatrist will assess your condition, risk factors for side effects, and other factors to determine which is the best option for you. It's important to be patient with antidepressant medications because you might not feel the full effects for several weeks. Be sure to only use these medications with your doctor’s approval.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy has been used to treat many types of depression for a long time before SAD lights existed. Now, it can be used alone or combined with light therapy and medications to improve the outcome of treatment. Psychotherapy consists of talking to a therapist who guides you as you work out problems and resolve mental health issues.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one type of psychotherapy that can help with SAD. Basically, the process entails identifying the thoughts behind your feelings or behaviors, questioning their validity, deciding whether to hold onto those thoughts and then replacing them with more helpful thoughts if needed.

CBT can help with the seasonal affective disorder in several ways. First, it can help you change thoughts that are causing you to feel worse. Also, you can learn coping skills that will help you deal with the symptoms of SAD. You can learn to diminish avoidance behavior and work on scheduling helpful activities. Finally, you can learn to deal with stress more effectively.

Mind-Body Techniques

Most people use mind-body techniques on their own or with a class or group. They aren't typically the main focus of regular psychotherapy, although your therapist may include them as a part of your treatment. 

Some mind-body techniques include:

  • Meditation, especially mindfulness meditation
  • Prayer
  • Guided imagery
  • Biofeedback
  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Music therapy
  • Art therapy
  • Relaxation techniques

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is called the sunshine vitamin because you can get it from sunlight. If your body is low on Vitamin D, supplements can help bring that level up to normal. However, if your Vitamin D levels are already normal or higher, these supplements will not help. 

Also, consider that research results have not shown conclusively that Vitamin D supplementation is helpful for seasonal depression.

Self-Help For SAD

While it's important to get the professional care you need, there are also several things you can do to help yourself. 

Some of these include:

  • Spend time outside when the sun is shining.
  • Exercise
  • Take a vacation to a sunnier locale.
  • Make sure you get no more than nine hours of sleep at night and don't sleep during the day.

Getting Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Before you assume you have a seasonal affective disorder and need a light therapy box, it's important to make sure of your diagnosis. Talk to a physician or mental health profession to find out if you truly do have SAD.

If you do find out you have SAD, your doctor or therapist will suggest treatments to help you deal with it. Again, if they suggest a light box lamp, be sure it is a seasonal affective disorder light therapy box that meets the specifications your doctor gives you. Then, use it in the way they recommend you use it. 

You can also talk to a counselor at BetterHelp for online therapy to help you manage your disorder and its symptoms. When you get the treatment you need, your winters may go much smoother so that you can enjoy spring even more.

Below are some commonly asked questions around this topic:

Do Sun Lamps Work For Seasonal Depression?

Yes. Studies show light therapy lamps provide an invaluable service in treating SAD.

What Kind Of Lamps Help With Seasonal Depression?

Seasonal depression can be treated with light therapy lamps, also known as light boxes or SAD lamps. 

Are SAD Lamps Good For Depression?

Research indicates that SAD lamp light boxes not only help treat the depression which typically occurs in the winter months, but can treat other types of depression as well, such as Unipolar Depression and Bipolar Disorder.

Can You Use A Sad Lamp Year Round?

Yes, you can use a light box lamp year-round. In fact, it may be a good idea, especially to counteract the depressive effects of excessive exposure to fluorescent light which many who work office jobs may suffer from.

Do SAD Lamps Give You Vitamin D?

Yes. The bright light from light therapy lamps can actually help your body produce more Vitamin D, making them an effective way to treat SAD.

Can You Do Too Much Red Light Therapy?

Do Light Therapy Lamps Actually Work?

Yes, light box therapy lamps do work for alleviating depressive symptoms.

How Long Should You Use A Light Therapy Lamp?

Do LED Lights Help With Depression?

Yes. Studies show light therapy lamps can help alleviate symptoms of depression brought on by Vitamin D deficiency.

Can I Use A SAD Lamp In Summer?

Yes, light therapy lamps can be used in the summer. In fact, they may be the best course of action for those who spend a lot of time indoors.

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