Light therapy lamps can be helpful in treating seasonal affective disorder (SAD), as they impact the body’s circadian rhythm. In this Forbes article, Mindpath Health’s Leela R. Magavi, MD, discusses why light therapy lamps are helpful in the dreary months and what to look for if you’re going to purchase one.
It’s that time of year again in which the days get shorter, and darkness sets in a lot earlier, and it’s common to see a shift in your energy levels and mood as a result. You may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression marked by significant changes in mood and behavior as the seasons change. A light therapy lamp, though, might help.
Light therapy lamps can be a helpful form of therapy for SAD, as they can impact the body’s circadian rhythm.
What is a light therapy lamp and how does it work?
Light therapy lamps are medical devices that emit artificial light designed to uplift your mood, and they’re typically used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), depression, dementia, and jet lag. It’s not entirely understood what causes SAD, but research suggests it might be linked to changes in circadian rhythm, serotonin levels and the eyes’ sensitivity to light.
Using a light therapy lamp or a sun lamp is thought to help reset the sleep-wake cycle by impacting the body’s regulation of melatonin and other important brain chemicals.
Benefits of light therapy lamps
The use of light therapy lamps has been a mainstay treatment for SAD since the 1980s, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Research has found that bright light therapy is not only an effective treatment for SAD, but non-seasonal depression as well, with efficiency comparable to fluoxetine (a type of antidepressant medication). Specifically, bright light therapy is found to have the following physiological effects:
- Resynchronizes the biological clock (circadian rhythm)
- Enhances alertness
- Increases sleep pressure
- Increases serotonin levels
“Some research studies show that light therapy may normalize individuals’ circadian rhythms by stimulating retinal cells, which consequently affect the hypothalamus, a portion of the brain implicated in the regulation of many important bodily functions,” says Leela Magavi, MD, a psychiatrist and regional medical director at Mindpath Health. “Seasonal changes and diminished exposure to sunlight may cause dysregulation of melatonin and serotonin levels.”
How to use a light therapy lamp
A light therapy lamp is considered an effective form of treatment for SAD, according to a study in American Family Physician. Specifically, clinical practice guidelines for light therapy lamps for the treatment of SAD are as follows:
- Aim for the morning. Light therapy should be used for 30 minutes in the morning. Your eyes must be open, but there’s no need to stare at the light.
- Don’t get too close. Your light therapy lamp should be placed 12 to 18 inches away from you.
- Research the specifics of your lamp. Your light therapy lamp should emit 10,000 lux of white fluorescent light without ultraviolet wavelengths.
- Keep it consistent. Improvement is typically noticed in one to two weeks with regular use.
Light therapy lamps are generally considered safe for use. However, experts recommend speaking with your doctor before using light therapy if you have bipolar disorder, as it may trigger mania in some people, and use caution if your eyes or skin are sensitive to light. Other minor side effects may include eye irritation and dryness, headache, nausea and dryness of skin.
Best light therapy lamps
If you’re considering purchasing a light therapy lamp, be sure to talk to your doctor first about whether it might be an effective form of therapy for you and your needs. Once you’ve received approval from your doctor, consider light intensity, brightness levels and whether the lamp filters out UV light.
Other factors to keep in mind include budget, design and size, as you can find lamps that are detachable, mountable or even small enough to fit in a purse. Many light therapy lamps come with added features, such as wireless charging, built-in timers and alarm clocks, as well as automatic shut-off features.