Do SAD Lamps Work?

Person at desk with SAD lamp

Seasonal Affective Disorder is real – but are SAD lamps real too? SAD usually happens during fall and winter.

These seasons are often characterized by shorter days and longer nights. So it is logical to deduce that SAD may be due to less exposure to sunlight.

Is it right then to assume that SAD lamps can make up for our lack of sunlight exposure? Let’s check what experts have to say…

Seasonal Affective Disorder – What Is It?

There might be some of you who have not heard of seasonal affective disorder or SAD. So what is it?

SAD is a type of depression linked to the change in the season. In most cases, it starts and ends about the same time every year.


You could start experiencing SAD at the start of the fall season and this could be abated by the end of winter. It is not the same as a case of winter blues because when you have SAD, almost nothing could cheer you up.

Woman outside in winter

Do People Get SAD in the Summer?

While this is not a common occurrence, there are also people who get depressed during the summer. The reason could be the opposite of the more common winter-related SAD.

The person could experience too much exposure to the sun and becomes aggressive, anxious and angry.

So what to do?

You can find dark rooms, which is the opposite of the light therapy needed to treat winter-induced SAD.

Speaking of light therapy…

SAD Lamps

This article is really about SAD lamps and its efficacy.

So let’s jump in

SAD lamp is the device used in light therapy for SAD-related issues. We have to clarify that because light therapy is actually used in various problems.

Phototherapy is essentially the exposure to light in order to treat some conditions:

  • Exposure to light that mimics daylight to treat SAD.
  • Exposure of the skin to wavelengths of light to treat a skin condition.


SAD lamps are devices that emit 10,000 lux. Lux is the measure of illuminance of a light.

Sunlight during a bright day has between 80,000 and 100,000 lux. Daylight has between 10,000 and 25,000 lux.

What’s the difference?

Sunlight means direct exposure to the sun, while daylight is the light we enjoy during the day without direct exposure from the sun.

Good news:

Sunlight has ultraviolet radiation. SAD lamps don’t.

The idea of using a SAD lamp is that people will simulate being exposed to daylight.


When you are looking for a SAD lamp, here are the most important requirements:

  • Around 10,000 lux
  • UV-free

You don’t actually need SAD to reap the benefits of the SAD lamp. If you feel like you need more light in your life, you should get in front of a SAD lamp.


Do SAD lamps work?

SAD lamp

Light Therapy After Waking Up

Dr. Michael Craig, senior editor of the Mental Health Publishing of Harvard Medical School, suggested using light therapy after awakening for people suffering from SAD.

A person suffering from SAD can use light therapy for at least 30 minutes immediately after waking up. The SAD lamp, he said, is about 100 times brighter than indoor lights.

What to do?

Keep your eyes open but don’t look at the lamp directly. You can do anything while doing the light therapy as long as you can be in close proximity to the lamp.

Normally, the SAD lamp is placed on a desk. So you can read or do a little bit of work on your desk while doing light therapy.


“If lack of sunlight causes or contributes to SAD, then getting more light may reverse it. Bright light works by stimulating cells in the retina that connect to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that helps control circadian rhythms,” said Dr. Miller.

What is circadian rhythm?

The circadian rhythm is your internal clock. This determines your sleep-wake cycle within 24 hours.

Basically, it is your body clock. For those who have regular sleeping hours, you feel sleepy when it’s nighttime and awake when it’s daytime.

Person asleep on desk


A disruption of your circadian rhythm may cause you to feel out of sorts. This is what happens when you cross a timezone and experience jet lag.

The same thing happens during the cold season when the day tends to be shorter.

As it happens

Dr. Miller described those with SAD to lose steam when the nights are longer and the days are shorter.

“Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include loss of pleasure and energy, feelings of worthlessness, inability to concentrate, and uncontrollable urges to eat sugar and high-carbohydrate food,” he said in a medical blog.


Light therapy doesn’t work for everyone. So if you continue to feel lousy even after undergoing therapy, then you have to revisit your doctor to check other alternatives.

Biological + Mood Disturbances

According to the American Family Physician (AFP), SAD is a combination of biological and mood disturbances with a  seasonal pattern. Every year, about 5% of Americans experience SAD.

The AFP believes that light therapy works.

According to the organization:

“Light therapy is generally well tolerated, with most patients experiencing clinical improvement within one to two weeks after the start of the treatment.”

Just because you are already feeling better, it doesn’t mean that you should stop the therapy.

In fact

Light therapy should continue until the end of winter to prevent a relapse of SAD.

As for its efficacy: “Multiple systematic reviews and meta-analyses evaluating the available data support the use of light therapy as an effective treatment for SAD.”


The person should be 12 to 18 inches away from the SAD lamp. Just like the Harvard doctor and editor suggested, the family physicians also believe that 30 minutes of exposure to the SAD lamp will be good.

It should also be done early in the morning. You may read or eat as long as your eyes are open without looking directly at the light.


The doctors suggest doing the therapy as early as autumn in the next few years in order to avoid relapse.


The AFP study also noted that SAD lasts about 40% of the entire year. This is based on the 5% of Americans who experience this type of depression.

Because of its recurrence and duration, SAD is considered a serious mental health problem,” the AFP said. “The symptoms can have a substantial impact on patients’ families and employment.”


SAD is predominantly experienced by women. For every man with SAD, there is a counterpart of four women experiencing the same issue.

It is particularly prominent among women in their childbearing years.


Older children are also susceptible to SAD. The most vulnerable ages are 16 to 18 years old.

Group of teenagers

Bright Lights

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), people with SAD feel the worst in January and February. These are the months that have the shortest days.

People in northern latitudes are also more vulnerable than others. And just like what the AFP recognized, the APA also noted more cases with women–young women at that.

Get this:

“Once SAD was identified, researchers hypothesized that its typical appearance with winter had something to do with lowered exposure to sunlight.

“The obvious next step was to lengthen exposure to light intensity more akin to outdoor levels. It worked.”


In 1998, Charmane Eastman of the Biological Rhythms Research Laboratory at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago led a team in a study that included bright lights.

Ninety-six people with winter SAD were exposed to one of three bright lights. The lights were between 10 and 20 times brighter than indoor lights.

What’s next?

Patients either had an hour and a half of bright light exposure in the morning or the same amount in the evening. Then another group experienced placebo light.

Three weeks later, the study was concluded.

The result?

More people belonging in the group that got morning light treatment showed more complete remission of SAD symptoms compared to those who had the placebo.

Those who experienced evening light showed better results than the placebo, but it wasn’t significant.

That’s right!

Effective light therapy in the morning can foster full remission of depression.

Light shining through trees


Light therapy works–generally. A group of physicians found that most patients who underwent the therapy got better in a week or two.

You should recognize the word “most” though. This means that light therapy is not for everybody.

You should have a SAD lamp at home in case SAD hits you during cold months. However, you can’t just depend on its efficacy.

If you think that it is not working for you, check with your doctor again. Perhaps another form of therapy or maybe antidepressants would be better suited for you. 

For best results, people should be exposed to the SAD lamp early in the morning for 30 minutes. Distance between you and the light should be between a foot and a foot and a half.

You Might Also Like…

Now that you know that SAD lamps work, the next question is: Are SAD lamps safe? Read this to find out.

Find out the best SAD lamps to use for your light therapy in this round up.

Light therapy works but there are other options to treat seasonal affective disorder.

Useful Resources

  • What is Seasonal Depression: Why You May Feel Down During the Winter – INSIDER
  • 5 Ways to Handle Seasonal Affective Disorder and Winter Depression – Business Insider
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder: How the Weather Can Cause Hibernation – BBC News


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