As Darker Days Set In, Light-Therapy Lamps Can Thaw Your Winter Blues

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The darker winter season ordinarily brings about lethargy and melancholy in many of us, but this is no ordinary winter. With coronavirus outbreaks surging around the country and scuttling social activities, coupled with a stressful and protracted election season, medical professionals are predicting a long winter for those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder and other forms of winter depression.

“People in many communities are being asked to stay indoors as much as possible,” said Dr. Zena Samaan, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. “That goes against all the mental health advice we usually promote to people.”

If the shortening days are affecting you physically and mentally — sparking anxiety, fatigue, loss of pleasure, disruptions to sleep or appetite — you’re likely familiar with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), an often debilitating malaise caused by daylight deprivation that typically lifts as winter fades into spring and summer.

SAD can only be diagnosed by a medical professional, said Dr. Teodor Postolache, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and it isn’t a one-off experience: To be clinically diagnosed, a person must experience seasonal remission and a reawakening of the depression in multiple winters — not necessarily consecutive, but more than one.

Dr. Postolache has studied and diagnosed the condition in people of all ages and races, and while SAD and “holiday blues” are often conflated, not all depression that occurs during winter months is necessarily SAD, he said.

Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, said the biological triggers for the condition are unclear, “but the hypothesis is that an increase in melatonin production caused by longer winter nights may trigger SAD in vulnerable people.”

“Light has some fairly potent biological effects on the brain,” he continued, particularly in regulating melatonin production and sleep-wake rhythms.

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Because SAD is so strongly tied to light, therapy lamps, which are sometimes called light boxes, can be a powerful and easy way to treat the disorder at home. The lamps utilize dozens of bulbs to imitate sunlight, and are ensconced in casing designed to protect you from harmfulUV rays. They beam up to 10,000 lux — lumens per square meter — of light in short distances, about the same amount as sunlight on a clear day. They don’t require a prescription and are generally eligible for reimbursement with a flexible spending account (FSA), health savings account (HSA), or a health reimbursement arrangement (HRA).

While light therapy is not the only treatment for SAD and the less-severe “winter blahs,” it is among the most powerful. The key is doing it “consistently and properly,” Dr. Zeitzer said. “Finding the brightest, most comfortable light that you’re willing to use on a daily basis is what matters most.”

As a staff writer at Wirecutter, the New York Times company that reviews and recommends products, I’ve tested several light-therapy lamps of varying shapes, sizes and brightness, from dim lamps the size of a kitchen trivet to beaming behemoths that take up most of a full-sized desk. (Before buying one, discuss your circumstances with a doctor who has experience guiding light therapy, as the devices can cause side effects if used improperly or in people with certain medical conditions, including migraines and non-SAD mood disorders.)

When shopping for a light-therapy lamp, consider where you’re most likely to use it. Then you can decide whether to prioritize features like portability or mechanical adjustability. (Most portable lamps are not adjustable, whereas heftier lamps can be adjusted.) The size and brightness of the surface determine how much therapeutic light you receive, and how long you need to sit there for the greatest benefit.

The FDA does not test, approve or regulate light-therapy devices, so shoppers are beholden to manufacturer’s claims of sitting distances — ranging from mere inches to around two feet — for maximum efficacy. Most light-therapy lamps deliver between 2,500 and 10,000 lux, though according to Dr. Samaan and otherdoctors we interviewed, 10,000 lux is the minimum for a SAD lamp to be therapeutically effective. So look for a model the manufacturer says emits 10,000 lux (as most reputable brands do).

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Wirecutter’s top pick, the Carex Day-Light Classic Plus ($115), has been used in academic research, and on its highest setting it projects 10,000 lux of light. The lamp has an especially large light surface (15.5 by 12.5 inches) and is affixed to an adjustable tabletop base, so you can position yourself beneath the light while working on a laptop or reading a book. Most lamps with smaller light surfaces require that you sit closer to them, and for longer, to receive as much light.

A more streamlined lamp that’s nearly as large and also emits 10,000 lux is the Northern Light Technologies Boxelite ($190), which is also best used on a table or desk. If you’d prefer a portable and less expensive lamp, the Verilux HappyLight Luxe ($70) is a compact tabletop model that emits 10,000 lux, according to its manufacturer.

Some newer models come with onboard gadgetry such as alarm clocks and wireless phone charging. However, nice aesthetics and superfluous add-ons tend to make for higher price tags and no additional therapy.

Whichever model you prefer, any high-quality, effective therapeutic lamp should emit white light (not blue), and it should use either LED or fluorescent bulbs, not incandescents. The bulbs should be fitted with a permanent plastic cover to absorb ultraviolet radiation, which is potentially dangerous for your eyes.

Just as you shouldn’t ever stare directly into the sun, you should never look directly at a shining light-therapy lamp. “Staring at the light causes macular degeneration,” Dr. Postolache warned. “Peripheral vision is what you want to stimulate. So treat yourself while you’re focused on something else, such as paying bills. “Or better yet,” he said, “doing something that you enjoy that helps you relax.”

Indeed, simply setting aside time for light therapy can be its own benefit. “Everyone’s home all the time now, nonstop busy with a lot of responsibilities, but light-therapy treatment creates an opportunity to just sit and paint one’s nails or read a magazine,” Dr. Postolache said. “That time sitting with the lamp creates the benefit to having some time for yourself that may in itself increase the efficacy of this treatment.”

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