It’s no surprise that some (if not most) of us feel a bit more sad, sluggish, drab, and depressed in the winter months of the year. As most of you are aware, we experience less daylight hours, among other factors, that contribute to a shift in mood, sleep, and other physiological changes. As a person who feels more seasonally depressed, I began using a light therapy box to see if it helps. In this post, we will discuss the pros and cons, how to, and why I use a light therapy box for symptoms of seasonal depression.
I want to introduce you to “the happy light.” Jokingly, my family and I came up with this nickname after I received my light therapy box as a gift for Christmas. I was so excited and now I feel like everyone needs to know more about this simplea, healthy, natural way to help fight off the winter blues.
Don’t Be SAD
While I am not a licensed professional, I am a trained mental health clinician. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a fairly prevalent mental health disorder, with nearly 20% of the recurrent depression occuring seasonally (1). In addition, SAD tends to affect more people as you head north. And while not everyone would maybe fit the diagnosis, most people report feeling more tired, less motivated, and general lower moods during the winter at least some of the time.
Enter the magical light therapy box.
As a person who has dealt with bouts of depression, both seasonally and non-seasonally, I am surprised I never used light therapy before until about a year ago. I remember always hearing about it and even recommending it to clients that I worked with. But I never knew anyone who used the light box or heard personal testimonies of its helpfulness to help inspire me to buy one.
Light Box Therapy for SAD
So whether you are like me and have had off and on depressive moods, or you just feel downright “blah” from November-March, light box therapy could be helpful.
While mood changes are common, there are different ways to approach this problem. Though traditional medication could help improve symptoms of depression, there is research that indicates that light therapy can help restore the body to a normal circadian rhythm which then leads to less symptoms (2). And with many apprehensive to take medication for depression, especially if its mild and only last a few months, many are looking to alternative ways to feel better in the winter.
Light therapy is the use of a light box, a powerful bright light that mimics sunlight. The flourescent bulbs produce roughly 10,000 LUX of light, which is more than 100 times brighter than regular indoor lighting (2). The light box works when the person using sits in front of (or near) these bright lights for roughly 30 minutes a day, helping to stimulate the parts of the brain responsible for regulating our circadian rhythm as well as help stimulate serotonin, the neurotransmitter so often found in deficit in those with depression (1, 2).
Now, you may be wondering, does that actually work? The answer is, yes, my dear, it does. In one study, they found light therapy to be as effective as the anti-depressant Fluoxetine (aka Prozac) but with far less side effects compared to the prescription drug (3). In addition, there is good evidence that light therapy can help with non-seasonal depression and sleep disorders as well (4).
How Does It Work?
First off, for safe use, make sure you research your light therapy box. Do not get or use any light box that says “UV Light” as this type of light can cause damage to eyes and skin. Generally, the light therapy boxes filter out UV and are considered safe. Just make sure to read the descriptions carefully.
Next, it is recommended that you use the light therapy box as close to first thing in the morning as possible. The later in the day you use, the more likely it will interfere with sleep rather than help it.
Additionally, you need to sit about 12-18 inches away to get the best effect, which is much closer than you would think. Once positioned, you will need to keep your eyes open, so its best to use the light box while you are doing something else such as reading, watching TV, or working on the computer.
Use daily for 30-45 minutes a day. I remember feeling a noticeable difference the first time I used it. Usually it takes about 4 days of regular use to experience the benefits. Generally speaking, it is wise to consult with a healthcare professional if you are experiences symptoms of depression or if you are interested in using light therapy to help improve your mood and sleep.
What are the benefits?
There are many claims to light therapy and the light box products themselves. The primary benefits include (5):
- improved mood
- improved energy
- better sleep
When I use my light therapy box, I feel more alert, energized, and clear minded. My mood tends to be uplifted as well, which I don’t think is coincidental.
Though light therapy can be effective, keep in mind that it is not a cure-all and it may not work for everyone. For myself, I use it in tandem with other self-care, as well as formal medication. Activities such as meditation, yoga, and exercise, all which are known to help ease depression and anxiety symptoms.
What are the risks?
While the light box therapy is generally considered safe, it’s important to note a couple of key warnings. First, there is evidence that light therapy could bring on hypomania in those with bipolar disorder, thus it may not recommended for individuals with this type of disorder (3).
Secondly, light therapy could cause eye strain and its important that you avoid looking directly into the light (just like the sun). If you find it causes problems, try to reduce the amount of time from 30 to 15. Or sit back a bit further.
Lastly, some report mild and short lived side effects of headache, nausea, or irritability or agitation with the start of using the light therapy box. Keep note of how you feel and discuss concerns with a healthcare professional if the side effects don’t level off in a couple of days.
Where Can I Get a Light Therapy Box?
If you are an online shopper, there are plenty of places you can find a light therapy box. In addition to online, many places sell them such as Walgreens and Bed Bath and Beyond. The box that I currently use is called the “SunTouch Plus” from Nature Bright. (I am an affiliate for Amazon, still recommend this) It’s very easy to use. It has a timer you can set for 15, 30, 45, and 1 hour increments. And it seems pretty dang bright.
It also has the added bonus (PLUS) of a negative ionizer. This releases negative ions into the atmosphere, which mimic the negative charge of the air after a thunderstorm. This can, in fact, help boost energy and mood as well. It costs about $60 (which seems pretty reasonable to me), and they recommend you replace the bulbs every 2 years. There is a way to order replacement bulbs on Amazon and it looks like they run about $43 for a set of 4 bulbs.
You could easily spend much more than that, with one light box ringing at nearly $300.
Overall, I think using a light box is an easy choice for your health and wellness. I personally recommend finding one if you feel down, tired, and more “blah” in the winter.