We made it through the winter solstice, and the days are finally getting longer — but not by much. The nights are still long and it still gets dark… a few minutes after lunch. If the sun setting at 5 p.m. has you down, you’re not alone. Depression and anxiety tend to increase in winter, as do cases of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), referred to clinically as major depressive disorder with seasonal affect. The disorder comes with the same symptoms as regular depression but has a seasonal pattern.
SAD is thought to be caused in part by fewer hours of daylight. “There’s a lot of evidence available that would suggest that sunlight is responsible for maintaining… a neurotransmitter, serotonin, in our brain, and a hormone called melatonin in our body,” says Dr. Priyanka, psychiatrist and medical director of the Los Angeles-based practice Community Psychiatry. While regular depression can be caused by several different kinds of chemical imbalances, seasonal depression is associated with low levels of serotonin, which is stimulated by melatonin. “These two chemicals interplay with each other to maintain the circadian rhythm. When there is less sunlight available, there’s imbalance, and it starts to interfere with the circadian rhythm.”
How SAD Lamps Work
Luckily, the first line of treatment for SAD is simple, relatively inexpensive, and can be done at home. Light therapy boxes (essentially extra bright lamps) can mimic sunlight, telling the body to produce serotonin. One study found that sitting in front of a light therapy box, also known as a sun lamp or SAD lamp, with 6,000 lux (a metric that refers to the amount of light falling on a surface) for 1.5 hours a day for three weeks put people in remission from seasonal depression. But Dr. Priyanka recommends choosing a lamp that delivers 10,000 lux of light, which mimics sunlight and could deliver the same results in as little as 30 minutes. Some research indicates that people could respond within a few days of treatment. (Note that spending 30 minutes outside would deliver similar, if not better effects, but when that’s not an option, light therapy boxes are a good alternative.)
Since serotonin tends to be lowest in the morning, it’s best to use a light therapy box within a few hours of waking up. This can help make up for the daily dip in serotonin and regulate the circadian rhythm. The general recommendation is to sit 1 to 2 feet away, but the bigger the surface area of the light, the more wiggle room you have. (Lamps that are at least 1 foot by 1.5 feet work best, according to research by the National Institute of Mental Health.) It’s a good idea to choose a lamp that blocks UV rays, which can damage the skin.
SAD Lamps Are Not Just for SAD
While light therapy is designed to treat people with low serotonin levels, Dr. Priyanka says it’s likely that even people with less severe conditions, who feel they don’t function as well in the winter, could benefit. There are, however, some people who should consult a doctor first. “Anybody who is susceptible to bipolar disorder should not use [a SAD lamp]. The increase in serotonin can cause a switch to mania and make people’s moods unstable. And anybody who’s taking serotonin agents, like antidepressants, should definitely discuss it with their physician, because there is a syndrome called serotonin syndrome…and it can be very serious,” DeSilva says.
Though light therapy is the first line of defense against SAD, additional support is always a good idea. “Everybody struggles with their mood at some point in their life,” DeSilva says. “The more tools and support you have, the easier the struggle can be. I really encourage people to, even if they’re going to use that light, also make a phone call to some therapist or psychiatrist or your primary care provider to get some support.”
The Best Sun Lamps for SAD
This compact lamp folds up like a book, making it much more portable, not to mention inexpensive. It’s a little smaller than the recommended size, with a height of only 8.5 inches, but with two 11-inch-wide panels, it’s still one of the larger models out there. It also has a 30-minute timer, making it easy to know when you’ve gotten sufficient light.
This lamp is also smaller than the recommended diameter, but its design is less obtrusive, meaning you may be more likely to use it. It takes up about the same amount of space as a table lamp, and doubles as an alarm clock and wireless charger. Plus, it’s surprisingly affordable compared to other models. The important thing to consider with smaller light therapy lamps is that you have to be closer to it to get the same effects.
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