I think it’s time for a SAD lamp.
October 16, 2020 7:05 AM   Subscribe

I think I want to try using a SAD lamp. If you use or have used one, did you feel it had an effect? How often/when did you use it? Do you have a personal recommendation for a specific type or brand? I’m interested in responses from people who have actually used a SAD lamp, please!
posted by bookmammal to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have a designated certified SAD lamp, but I got an AeroGarden last winter and found it fulfills roughly the same purpose, with the bonus of growing food. The full spectrum light is VERY BRIGHT! and comes on a schedule to provide 10-14 hours of light. Depending where you put it in your house, it could greatly increase the amount of illumination in your life.
posted by Freyja at 7:17 AM on October 16 [2 favorites]

I just pulled my lamp out of the attic today, in fact. It's a freestanding lightbox-style number, a bit like this one.

I use it for 20-30 minutes in the morning, while I'm sitting upstairs getting my brain ready to go to work. I find it improves my sleep during the dark months, and keeps my usual mood swings (ugh, perimenopause sucks) from getting completely out of hand.

This is an area where YMMV and probably does. I'm on the "can't hurt, might help, give it a try" side of the fence, myself.
posted by humbug at 7:21 AM on October 16 [1 favorite]

I use a light box for twenty minutes every day, first thing in the morning, sitting as close to the light as I can manage but not staring directly into it. This was my doctor's recommendation when I started, and it looks like it's still The Mayo Clinic's advice.

Some people use them for longer. I have bipolar disorder and too much light can make people manic, so I limit myself to twenty minutes. Better safe than sorry.

When you're buying a light box, you need to think about distance. Brightness is measured in lux, and it varies by distance. So a real properly-rated light box won't just say "10,000 lux" — it will say "10,000 lux at 12 inches" or "10,000 lux at 24 inches." That distance is how close you'll need to sit to the light box for it to have its full effect: one foot away, or two feet away, or etc.

So if a light box just says "10,000 lux" with no distance, you don't really know how strong it is. They might be measuring it from absurdly close. Maybe you'd have to be just an inch away from it for it to be effective. They haven't said, so you don't know. When I buy a new one, I just avoid the ones that don't list a distance. Maybe it's unfair, but I tend to feel like if they're not being up-front about how to use it safely and effectively, they're probably just cashing in and not making a quality product.

Light boxes have gotten much cheaper and nicer over the past ten years. You can get a real proper rated-at-a-reasonable-distance one for less than $100 now, and still have it be attractive and well designed instead of looking like a piece of industrial lighting.

I do find that this light box routine does more for me than just buying full-spectrum light bulbs. But I've got unusually bad seasonal depression on top of other mental health problems. If you want to start small, and you're not, like, worried about your safety, having trouble doing your job, or giving up on other obligations, you could try full-spectrum light bulbs first.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:33 AM on October 16 [2 favorites]

I’ve tried two since moving to NW WA. The first was Wirecutter’s pick, but the stand and box were just too large to position easily (and keeping only 12” away) at my desk, where I was hoping to use it while starting my work day. (Shakes fist at working EST hours and living PST.) It also flickered, but the second one that I ordered at the same time didn’t.

The second one I’m still using is much smaller, about the size of an iPad mini. The downside it that it seems much brighter to have in your field of vision, since the same lux are coming from a smaller area. Way more convenient though, and the brighter LEDs say it’s still effective from further away. I’m thinking about getting a gooseneck stand for it or something.

The hard part is getting into a routine and keeping it somewhere you can have it in front of you for a half hour within two hours of waking up. Breakfast table, first thing in the morning internet surfing, that sort of thing.
posted by supercres at 7:49 AM on October 16

I tried one, 30 minutes a day, and it was not useful.
posted by metasarah at 7:54 AM on October 16

Strongly recommend reading the Wirecutter article though
posted by supercres at 7:54 AM on October 16

I tried using one and the lighting felt like being in a big box store. It felt like having caffeine, and gave me a headache.
posted by aniola at 8:00 AM on October 16

Someone recently recommended Luminettes, glasses frames with light shining down from above, but not right in your eyes. Those sound less headache-inducing to me.
posted by aniola at 8:02 AM on October 16

I have a Verilux Happy Lamp, and found it helpful. I couldn't use it for super long periods as it made me feel a little manic, but a few minutes in the morning were a great help!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:20 AM on October 16

I bought a compact desktop one a few years back, and would blast it in my face for about 45 minutes in the morning -- this is a great reminder that it's time for me to get it back out again!

For me personally, it definitely helped. Especially with feeling less like a slug for the first half of the day.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:42 AM on October 16

I bought and have used the wirecutter first pick after reading the article last year. these lamps and their use is more complex than some random lamps on Amazon can deliver. The Carex is big, but it's worth it in my opinion. It absolutely helped take the edge off my depression and my sleep was much more regular. I sit and read in its glow in the dark mornings after I wake up. Finding space for it is a challenge that's worth tackling in my opinion. I put it away for half the year which helps.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 8:59 AM on October 16

I have a giant one that used to belong to my sister (kind of like this one). I keep it right next to my desk and turn it on in the morning when I am up and using the computer and keep it on for a few hours. The days here are fearsomely short, and I think it helps somewhat in that I can tell when I don't use it. Similar to TPS above if I keep it on for TOO long I feel a little jittery.
posted by jessamyn at 9:03 AM on October 16 [1 favorite]

I worked in a windowless office in a miserable corporate environment in New Jersey. I got an OTT light for my desk and flipped it open while I was working. The light really lifted my spirits, and I continued to use it at home since it was so portable. The downside was that the light attracted my annoying, miserable co-workers who would sit at my desk and complain. I eventually solved my problems by moving to California, but I do recommend the Ott light.
posted by effluvia at 9:05 AM on October 16

I've had a Sunbox Sunray lamp (basically the model that jessamyn linked) for at least 15 years and use it daily (first thing in the morning upon getting out of bed, we sit 10 minutes of zazen in front of the lamp). It makes a big difference as autumn progresses and everything gets darker.
posted by Lexica at 9:28 AM on October 16 [1 favorite]

My psychiatrist's office medical center had them available to loan to patients to try out. I tried one, and it didn't seem to make any difference. I just wanted to mention that in case you are a patient at a medical center that has a similar program.
posted by FencingGal at 9:54 AM on October 16

I have the Carex lamp (an older model of the kind recommended by Wirecutter). I use it daily from September through March, for 20-30 minutes first thing in the morning. It absolutely makes a difference for me -- without it, I have hella trouble getting up in the morning, my mood sucks, and my sleep schedule just gets later and later as the winter progresses. With it, my mornings are better, my mood is better, and my sleep schedule stays on track. Exercise also helps A LOT, especially outdoor exercise. Exposure to sunlight, even the wintery grey half-light that passes for sunshine where I live, is very helpful too. I take Vitamin D through the winter as well, though that seems to have less of an effect as far as I can tell.

Be aware that, for those with a history of bipolar disorder, mania can be a side effect. I recommend asking your medical provider about it if you have questions.
posted by ourobouros at 10:20 AM on October 16 [1 favorite]

I got the glasses version (there are now more kinds I think), and that made it much more integratable into my life. Definitely felt an effect immediately.
posted by emkelley at 10:27 AM on October 16

I use the Carex model linked in the Wirecutter piece. The effect is very subtle on a day-to-day basis for me. But if I forget to use it one day and pick it back up the next, I definitely notice decreased lethargy.
posted by charcoals at 10:29 AM on October 16

I still use the lamp/approach I mentioned in this older thread. Thanks for the reminder that it is time to get that set up!
posted by superna at 11:23 AM on October 16

I like using mine, I often feel more energized and less depressed with it. I have a Sunbox SunSation. If I use it too long I get agitated and/or have trouble sleeping though. I also have a smart plug to turn it on when my alarm goes off to help me get out of bed.
posted by catquas at 11:46 AM on October 16

I use this Carex model. I’ve had the thing for… probably 6 years now? I try to use it 30 minutes a day, first thing in the mornings, from August until April. My ideal time to use it would be 6 AM, the time of a summer sunrise, to convince my brain that it’s still summer. It really does help my mood and sleep schedule… when I manage to get up and use it.

I wish I could just put it next to my bed, but that’s not feasible when I share my bed with a spouse who works a later-shifted schedule and doesn’t want to be blasted with light at 6 AM. Other challenge: It requires you to sit still underneath it for 30 minutes, so no moving around getting dressed, washing up, preparing breakfast, gathering your stuff for work.

All this means I usually wind up using it later than 6 AM (closer to 8-8:30 AM, so far this year) and for less than 30 minutes. Which makes it less effective. Shrug.

If you sleep alone, or have the willpower to drag yourself out of bed early to go sit under it, then it will be much easier to use as directed.
posted by snowmentality at 12:37 PM on October 16

Yes! I get reliably depressed every autumn - but not last autumn after I got a $30 SAD lamp from Amazon.

I only really use it on days when there's no sun to be had, and I probably don't use it as long as you're supposed to - probably 15 minutes in the morning in the bathroom while I get ready - but my money's on yes, it totally makes a difference.

(What this has done to the accuracy of my makeup application is another question, but it's apparently not bad enough for anyone to say anything, at least to me.)
posted by catesbie at 1:12 PM on October 16

I have had sleep and seasonal affective issues for a long, long time, so I've tried a lot of things, including probably 5 or 6 types of lamps. The thing for me about the lamps is that it has historically been hard to actually Do The Thing, which is to sit consistently and reliably at a table with the lamp shining on my face for 30 minutes each morning. (This is partly because my sleep stuff makes me not a morning person and so mornings are hard, but I think it's a problem people experience in general.) If you don't get reliably 10000 lux on your face every morning, the light therapy doesn't help nearly as much. So.

Another issue is that the research finds that the light ideally ought to be entering your eyes from an angle above your face, thus simulating morning sun, but a lot of the lights I've used sit on a table and either shine directly towards you or shine upwards towards you.

ANOTHER issue is that the light is supposed to be 10,000 lux, and a million lights advertise themselves as 10,000 lux, but in truth they only get that many photons into your eyeballs if they're, like, taped to your face. So with many bright lights you aren't getting an actual therapeutic dose.

All that said, when I've been vigilant about using bright lights, they have helped a LOT, and now that I've found one that is super foolproof for me to use, it has helped SOOOOO MUCH. I used to get totally whacked out every winter, my sleep rhythms would go entirely cattywompus, and by January I'd be seriously depressed, all the way through April or so. Now that I've found a light therapy that works for me, I sleep well, I wake up well, and I'm not like Goth Eeyore all winter.

Anyway, here are my reviews:

1. This, the Day Light Classic, $73, is the actual lamp that was used in a lot of the SAD/bright light research. It is whomping bright, huge, shines on your face from the correct angle, and I've seen it turn mild winter blues around (in my spouse) in just a couple of days. On the negative side, it's HUGE and the legs are pretty awkward. Mine has never fallen on anyone, but it still feels a little like it could. (There's a more sturdy looking version from the same company which might be the one Wirecutter likes, but I haven't tried it personally.)

2. My personal favorite is the $109 Feel Bright Light, which is a tiny green light that clips onto a visor. You'll see mixed reviews (they break! It happened to me too), but I would buy a third one if mine broke again, because it has literally changed my life. It's more effective than a table lamp, because it's always just right there on your face at the correct distance/angle from your eyes, and because it's on a baseball cap you can wear it while brushing your teeth, or making breakfast, or whatever. (Maybe the green color helps too, I don't know.) Anyway, this light has been the most effective out of the 5-6 that I've tried, it has regulated my sleep and mood for 2 winters, and I'm so grateful to have it now as we're heading into a third. (Note, there are other visor lights. I tried DayTimer and Feel Bright Jazz and sent them both back since they didn't seem as bright/effective; I haven't tried the Luminette or Pegasi.)

3. Finally, if you don't want a visor lamp and the big lamp is too big for you, this $66 table lamp is good and bright and has about 5000 good ratings. I don't think it's as effective as the other two, but I found it a bit effective, and if you read the reviews it appears to work for a lot of people.
posted by hungrytiger at 1:44 PM on October 16

p.s. Regarding the idea of ambient light, i.e. Aerogardens and more ornamental tiny "happy lights." To the extent that these things do help, I think it's mostly because they make the house feel more cheery. As far as researchers can tell, seasonal affective disorder is less a question of "not enough light," and more a question of "circadian rhythm becoming misaligned with the change of seasons." (Some people have seasonal affective disorder in the summer, even!)

And so if you have actual SAD, something like an Aerogarden -- if it stays on through the evening -- could actually contribute to your circadian misalignment, by further confusing your body about nighttime and daytime.

I'm all for cheering up the house with brighter lighting -- I do it myself, with plant lights on timers that go on in the morning and off in mid-afternoon -- but it's not equivalent to therapeutic use of 10000 lux in your eyes in the morning. And if you keep the bright lights on later into the day, you might be actually shooting yourself in the foot.
posted by hungrytiger at 2:03 PM on October 16 [1 favorite]

I've used one while eating breakfast for the last couple of winters. I found that the major effect was that it took me a shorter time to wake up and be alert with it.
posted by quaking fajita at 4:50 PM on October 16

I have This one. I have days when I feel really down in the winter and this makes an immediate impact. I'm not consistent about using it, but when I feel awful I will sit with it on my lap while watching tv or looking at something at that level for 10-20 minutes, I can feel it working right away. Looks like the price has gone down to $25 too, so I highly recommend it.
posted by Eyelash at 5:03 AM on October 19

I've been using one for a...month? and it has made a MARKED difference in my mood and productivity - to the extent of my boss and a close friend noticing. I've been really diligent about it.

I use the Carex one recommended by Wirecutter. It's easy to set up, sturdy, and very bright. It's not small, so figure out where you're going to put it and then buy a model that will fit there, or vice versa.

My ideal is to wake up at 6 and sit in front of it for a half hour; in order to make this happen, I pair it with a puzzle or crossword, and bought a coffee machine with a timer. So, I wake up, put on my robe, trudge downstairs, grab a cup of coffee, and plop down in front of it to work on a puzzle a bit.

So, if you get one, I recommend both removing any barriers to using it regularly, and finding a pleasant activity to do while you sit in front of it.

I also have a star chart.
posted by punchtothehead at 7:51 AM on October 19

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