Light therapy for SAD is the most common treatment used by millions of people around the world to treat the extra depression a lack of sunlight can give you. On this page, we look to explain almost everything there is to know about light therapy for SAD and to provide you with enough information to make an informed decision before buying one of the many products available on the market today.
What is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder, more commonly referred to as SAD, also known as winter depression, winter blues, summer melancholy, summer doldrums, or seasonal depression, is a mood disorder subset by which individuals who have normal mental health during the majority of the year suddenly experience depressive symptoms during the darker months or even during cloudy days in the summer months.
What causes SAD?
It is not known exactly what causes SAD. It has been suggested that it is related to the fewer hours of daylight that occur during winter and the fall. Levels of chemicals and hormones in the brain (like melatonin and serotonin) are affected by this reduced exposure to sunlight. Serotonin helps lift mood, and melatonin your patterns sleep and also your mood. Individuals that suffer from SAD are believed to generate too much or too little of these compounds when their exposure to sunlight is reduced.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
What exactly is light therapy for SAD?
Exposure to specialized bright light helps the body to stimulate the production of brain chemicals that relieve some of the symptoms that are associated with SAD.
In 2001, a team at Thomas Jefferson Medical University identified a photoreceptor in the human eye that is responsible for controlling the bodies production of melatonin when it receives light.
Research has been done that shows symptoms can be improved by exposure to a suitably bright artificial light in 2/3 instances of SAD.
This artificial light comes from a lightbox, which is an artificial light source designed to produce the same wavelengths of light as the natural sun. These light boxes emit up to 10,000 Lux (“Lux” is the unit of measurement for illuminance) which is the recommended amount to treat this disorder.
Despite being so bright the light emitted does not harm the eyes as long as it is used correctly.
How long has this treatment been available?
The first noted clinical effect was found at the National Institute of Mental Health in the early 80’s. Soon after this, different research centers started clinical trials. Currently, over 2,000 SAD patients have been examined to date.
This treatment has been used in private practices, mainly by psychiatrists (often early adopters of health technologies), but also by family doctors. The amount of doctors and clinicians now offering light treatment is growing dramatically, though, in comparison to psychotherapy or drug treatments, the procedure isn’t yet in widespread use.
How do you use light therapy for SAD?
For most individuals, light therapy provides best effects if used each day, upon awakening. Most studies have demonstrated this to be more effective than evening light when one timing is compared to the other and no further info is gathered about the patients participating.
You should sit with the light box in front of you so the light is shining on your face. You do not need to shine the light directly into your eyes. Most folks do their light therapy while performing every day sitting tasks such as working at a computer, reading, watching T.V or eating.
The light should be put above eye level so the light reaches the bottom of your retina. Patients in a test group with light hitting on just the top of the retina (so the light is below eye level) didn’t react as well to the therapy.
Normally, treatment starts with sessions of between 10 to 15 minutes each day, which are slowly increased to around 45 minutes each day. Thus depending on the lux output of your light. The lower the lux output, the longer you have to spend under the light.
Because the autumn and winter months are darkest, most people start light therapy for SAD early in the autumn and continue the treatment until late spring, when exposure to sunshine alone is enough.
How quickly does light therapy work?
Most individuals see an immediate improvement in around 3 days. If symptoms don’t improve after 4 to 6 weeks or get worse, you should speak to your doctor about additional treatment options.
Are there any side effects?
Light therapy for SAD can have some side effects. They are uncommon but can include:
It’s possible to use a SAD light therapy device too much. Agitation and eyestrain for between 1-3 days seems to be the principal side effect. Inducing mania has been observed in about 1% of users with bipolar disorder.
Those with photosensitivity (either naturally or through medication), as well as those who wear contact lenses, should be careful when beginning light therapy for SAD treatments.
Once light therapy works, those on antidepressants are often allowed by their doctor to lower their dosage.
For most patients, light therapy has proven to be extremely cost-effective and is classed as one of the safest and well as most natural treatments for SAD.
What to look for when buying a SAD light therapy device
Not all lights provide the same type or strength of light and there are many light therapy lamps available. Some lamps supply ultraviolet rays which are not recommended. UV light is limited (or blocked) by others, but generate a narrower band wavelength of light.
We cover all of this in our Best SAD light post where we review 20 of the most popular models on the market today and include all our buying advice on what you should look for when choosing a SAD light.
Are you looking for a SAD Light to help you beat the winter blues? We researched the market and took a closer look at what we considered the best available SAD lights on the market today. We then tested and created in-depth reviews of each of these lamps and selected a top 10 as well
LED light therapy for SAD
In the past few years LED light boxes designed to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder have proved to be equally as effective as traditional SAD Light apparatus fitted with traditional bulbs.
There have been some manufacturers who have latched onto this development and are making LED light boxes that do not meet the conditions met in the research. Some ‘copycat’ products, marketed at SAD sufferers do not produce the right lux output or wavelengths of light and while they are generally not dangerous they may efficiently treat Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Please constantly examine the maker’s website and published literature thoroughly before you purchase one of these products as you need to be sure of exactly what you are buying.
Our Best SAD light post above filters out all the rubbish giving you only a selection of the best products on the market.
Are dawn simulators effective for SAD?
Dawn Simulators do not do not emit anywhere near the 10,000 lux required to effectively treat SAD, however, they do help with some symptoms of SAD. Because of the low lux output they cannot be classed as a SAD Light.
A dawn simulator is a device used to help you gently wake up from sleep. Some of these simulators also include a Sunset feature to help to get to sleep.
They are great products on their own, but they should not be confused with SAD Lights as they do not provide enough exposure to daylight rays and they treat only part of the issue.
Dawn Simulators help you to get good sleep and aid you in wakening naturally in the mornings.
Lots of sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder buy both a Dawn Simulator and a SAD Light to be used in conjunction with one another. Waking using a Dawn Simulator and then immediately using a SAD light for around 30 minutes after you wake is one of the best ways to treat SAD.
What about blue light therapy for sad?
Blue light is the wavelength that sets biological rhythms, including sleep/wake cycles in people. Back around 2005, some businesses started making little blue light boxes. They could be smaller because they claimed only the “active ingredient” used in the white lights was being emitted by them.
There has been much debate about whether they are actually any good and up until very recently, there hasn’t been an conclusive proof of their effectiveness. Mind you, there is certainly research demonstrating that a small blue box is preferable to a placebo.