Are dogs better than lightboxes?
September 23, 2022 6:07 AM   Subscribe

I get terrible seasonal affective disorder every year and have been considering buying a light lightbox. However, I also take my dog outside every single morning, and am wondering if the natural daylight is as effective as if not more so than a pricey lightbox.

I've done a fair amount of googling, but can't seem to find anything that is a direct one to one comparison between the two. I am finding a lot of stuff saying "going outside in the winter is good for you," but it's not in the context of "going outside first thing will combat SAD same as a lightbox."

Every morning I go outside almost immediately upon waking for my dog to go to the bathroom, and then later after I have my coffee we go for about a 20 minute walk. All of this is within an hour of my waking up, and it is normally daytime out by then (i.e. not pre-dawn).

This was our routine last winter and I still got crushing SAD, so I was considering buying a lightbox to use while having my coffee. But dang those things are pricey for the high end ones. Would it just be redundant? It seems that even cloudy, early morning daylight is way more powerful than lightbox light. Perhaps I'm condemned to wintertime sadness (I do also take vitamin D).

Bonus question: if you have a lightbox that worked well for you, what brand and model is it? (I'm in the US, the wintry windswept northern part of it).
posted by whistle pig to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
This wearable visor really was effective for me. Plus, you could wear it on the dog walk if you wanted!
posted by sixswitch at 6:27 AM on September 23

Daylight is more lux than a lightbox, but doing your dog walks and then coming inside and using the lightbox for an extra hour is more lux than the dog walks alone. You know that the dog walks alone aren't sufficient, and you're not proposing to not walk your dog, so it's not really a choice between dog walks and lightbox—it's a choice between trying the lightbox or deciding that you're doomed to be sad. I recommend the former!
posted by babelfish at 6:57 AM on September 23 [22 favorites]

I know this isn't the question you asked, but something that has made a surprisingly big difference for me in coping with the low winter light is a sunrise alarm clock (or equivalent), along with smart lights or lights on timers around the rest of the house. It seems to really help me if I never have to wake, or walk, into a dark room. British winters used to make me want to just curl up and cry till spring, and now they don't.

By the sounds of it, you're hit harder by the winter than I ever was, so tweaking the household lighting probably won't solve the problem on its own, but still, if those are things you aren't already doing, you might want to give them a try.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 7:20 AM on September 23 [4 favorites]

Commercial SAD lamps are indeed very dim, I would suggest trying much brighter lighting.
posted by wesleyac at 7:30 AM on September 23 [2 favorites]

Lightboxes can be expensive, but sunlamps can be very affordable (everyone has different definitions of affordable, of course); I have a random one a friend got off Amazon for me for like $60 and a quick peek shows tons of options under $50. Get a cheap one, stick it on your desk, use it a lot.

I know it's also hard and we're all super busy and it's doubly hard in the winter, but you need more than 20 minutes outside. When my SAD is really kicking in, multiple short trips outside (so 20 minute dog walk in the morning, 10 minute stretch break, another 20 minutes at lunch, 10 or 20 minutes for the doggo post work, maybe even a stretch right before bed) are really necessary. Getting outside as much as I can possibly make time for is one of the few things that literally saved my marbles in the last couple of years.
posted by joycehealy at 8:12 AM on September 23

It seems that even cloudy, early morning daylight is way more powerful than lightbox light.

As a SAD sufferer and plant aficionado, this has been my take as well. That said, years ago on the Green someone pointed to this blog post about how insufficient SAD lights are. The author's solution was buying truck lights and hanging them from the ceiling, and in the updates since it appears that the price of LEDs have gone down sufficiently so that you can now buy a super bright 48k lumen LED stadium light for under $250, so I've been thinking of rigging a plant and human winter survival room.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:13 AM on September 23 [1 favorite]

I tried a light box and had mixed results.

During a particularly bad spell, I also used a sort-of sunrise alarm clock via some smart light bulbs in the bedroom. This seemed to help, and we kept them matched to normal spring/summer sunrise times. What also helped was forcing myself to continue outdoor exercise in the winter months and maximizing the amount of sunlight. I also slightly rearranged my office so that I'm more or less looking at a south-facing window all day. There's a bit of glare occasionally, but I've learned to live with it, especially as we head into the fall.

TL;DR: as much sun as possible seemed to do the trick for me.
posted by jquinby at 8:18 AM on September 23

Yes. Dogs are better than lightboxes because they get you outside.

In your case, your dog isn't enough. Fortunately, there are other things that can get you outside. And many dogs won't complain if you increase their number of daily walks. Spending more time outdoors has other additional benefits.

Light boxes have no additional benefits. However, if you won't spend more time outdoors, then a lightbox is better, under the "better than nothing" philosophy.
posted by aniola at 8:51 AM on September 23

This is probably obvious, but just in case. If you started getting SADD after moving somewhere north, see if you can get your vitamin D levels checked.

I lived in Portland for 7 years and it got a little better each year, and I even took vitamin D sometimes. But that last year, I went to the doctor and got my vitamin D checked, and it was low (as are apparently the vitamin D levels of many people that far north). The doctor gave me a higher dose of vitamin D to get my levels back up to normal, and I spent a ton of time outside gardening, and between the two, it was the easiest winter I spent in Portland.
posted by aniola at 9:02 AM on September 23

One thing I've done that has helped immeasurably is switching out all my lights for bulbs with a higher color temperature—5K or above. This is much cheaper than a light box, and I think I'm getting the same result (YMMV).
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 9:15 AM on September 23 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. Definitely eyeing those stadium lights!

I do spend quite a bit of time outside throughout the rest of the day, both with and without dog. I asked primarily about morning hours because that seems to be when light boxes are the most effective.
posted by whistle pig at 10:47 AM on September 23 [1 favorite]

See if you can borrow a SADD light before you go out and spend money on a stadium light. Personally I have found that the SADD lights are awful and a quick route to a guaranteed headache.
posted by aniola at 12:44 PM on September 23

I had really good luck with a fairly inexpensive lightbox (this one, it's no longer available but was only $40 and I suspect most of the others are similar). I just used it for 15 minutes a day and read or watched TV when it was in my lap so that I wasn't directly looking at it. It was a particularly rough winter and the box helped a lot!
posted by Eyelash at 7:50 PM on September 23

popping in to echo ManyLeggedCreature on recommending a sunrise alarm. i have a dog and similarly taking doggo outside is my first thing. my sunrise alarm clock has made all the difference in the world for me in the winter.

i also dose vitamin D drops, and have tried a cheaper end light box (Verilux happy light), but for me the alarm clock is the most significant impact. YMMV but good luck!!
posted by tamarack at 8:11 PM on September 23 [1 favorite]

Your question made me curious - this paper sets the optimal dose of light at one hour of 5,000 lux per day (or half an hour at 10k lux, two hours at 2,500 lux, etc).

Apparently, sunrise on a clear day is only 400 lux; it gets to 1,000-2,000 lux at noon on an overcast day; 10,000-25,000 lux in full daylight; and 32,000-130,000 lux in direct sunlight. (Btw 10 lux is a “foot-candle” in the US, neat eh)

So it seems like you’d need to spend probably all morning outside, if your exposure is comparable to what we get with the gloomy winters in Ontario, Canada. On a sunny day obviously you’d be lucky!

(If you search for your city and “sunshine duration” you can get the # of sunshine hours per month, if you don’t trust your sensibility about it.)

Probably worth getting a light box then?
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:20 PM on September 23

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