What is a SAD Lamp?

Girl looking excited

And More Frequently Asked Questions About SAD

This website recommends lamps that will help you conquer SAD, but if you are encountering the subject for the first time, what is a SAD lamp? And how can it help you? Here we look at some of the frequently asked questions that are fundamental to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What is a SAD lamp?

Have you ever noticed how much better you feel when you get to the summer and the sun comes out? How much happier and more positive you feel compared to the cold, dark times during winter?

The most basic explanation is that a SAD lamp is a light that attempts to help you deal with a lack of natural sunlight during winter months. So for instance when you get to the winter and it starts getting dark at 4pm or 5pm then sitting in front of a SAD lamp every day should benefit you. The lamp produces light that replicates sunlight and theoretically should lift your mood, making you feel more positive during the darker months of the year.

What is SAD?

So SAD stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is a term that refers to the winter blues a lot of people experience when the days are shorter and colder. It is often characterised by a feeling of lethargy – an improvement of the mood as the days lengthen and a decline as they shorten. Often sleep might be disrupted and creativity might decrease.

In short someone with SAD becomes more depressed during the winter months.

Is SAD the Same as the Winter Blues?

No, the winter blues is similar to, but not as severe as SAD. So for instance someone with the winter blues will feel a little down when it is dull and cold outside, but their mood could be picked up by a nice warm drink or sitting in front of a roaring fire.

Someone with the winter blues might become more tired and more withdrawn, but generally they can manage their lives okay during the winter – they go to work or college and participate in activities, but with a little less enthusiasm.

This is unlike someone with full blown SAD whose lives are hugely affected, they might not be able to even get out of bed to get to work and find that nothing gives them pleasure during the dark winter months.

The treatment for both SAD and the winter blues is the same however.

Dark winter scene

Who is at Risk of Developing SAD?

Population surveys conducted at different latitudes have shown that those who are further from the equator are more likely to develop SAD.

For instance 9% of those living in New Hampshire (42 ° North of the Equator) report symptoms of SAD whilst only 1.5% of those living in Florida (27 ° North of the Equator) report similar symptoms.

The relationship between latitude from the equator and frequency of SAD isn’t always as concrete. For instant the inhabitants of Iceland and Canadians of Icelandic extraction show a low frequency of SAD despite their northern locations and low frequencies of SAD were found in Japan. This suggests there might be other factors when it comes to suffering from SAD, but undoubtedly the evidence suggest the further from the equator the more likely you are to suffer from SAD as shown by the table below:

Latitude = degrees from the Equator
SAD = % of population suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder
WB = % of people suffering from Winter Blues
Total = Combined SAD and WB.

Sarasota, Florida27 °
Maryland39 °6.310.416.7
New York City40 °4.712.517.2
Nashua, New Hampshire 42 °9.711.020.7
Fairbanks, Alaska 65 °
Stockholm, Sweden 59 °3.913.917.8
Helsinki, Finland 59 °7.111.818.9
Oslo, Norway 59 °14.012.624.6
Reykjavik, Iceland 64 °3.87.611.3
Tromso, Norway 69 °13.710.724.4
Nagoya, Japan 35 °

Can SAD Lamps Really Help?

“Mehr licht” – those are the words exclaimed by the German poet Goethe as he was dying, it means ‘more light’. Individuals with SAD develop their symptoms during the short, dark days of winter or when they are deprived of light for any reason.

Using SAD lamps to help boost the mood is known as light therapy, and this treatment was the first designed to target SAD specifically. Light therapy involves exposure to intensely bright lights for a period of around 30 minutes each day and most people with SAD can expect an improvement within a couple of weeks or even sooner.

In short SAD lamps really can help – studies have shown that around 8 out of 10 people diagnosed with SAD report a successful hike in their mood from light therapy.

What is a SAD Lamp?

Is Light Therapy Safe for Everyone?

For most people yes it is totally safe, but not for everyone. Have a look at the questions below and answer yes or no to them:

  1. I’ve checked with my doctor or mental healthcare professional and have been diagnosed with SAD.
  2. My schedule is fairly regular. I get up and go to bed at about the same time each day.
  3. I can plan on spending 30 minutes or more each morning sitting in front of a SAD light.
  4. I’ve checked with my doctor about any medications that I might be taking that could cause photosensitivity (symptoms/conditions caused or aggravated by exposure to sunlight).
  5. If I have eye problems such as retinal disease, diabetes-related problems, or macular degeneration, I’ve checked with an ophthalmologist before choosing light therapy.
  6. I don’t feel irritable or edgy when I sit in bright light.
  7. I don’t suffer from headaches or nausea after sitting in bright light.
  8. If I have a history of skin cancer or lupus, I’ve consulted with my doctor and got given the go ahead.

If you answered yes to almost all the questions above light therapy might be an appropriate treatment for you.

A yes to questions 4, 5 and 8 is especially important if you are considering light therapy.

If you just suffer from the winter blues you can undertake light therapy without professional consultation (unless you have any of the issues in questions 4, 5 and 8). If you do experience side effects then either stop or get a consultation.

How Do I Know What is a Suitable SAD Lamp for Light Therapy?

Check out the SAD Light Reviews or Choosing a SAD Light page!

In all seriousness SAD lamps, or light boxes as they are also known, are usually metal or plastic fixtures of varying size containing ordinary white fluorescent light bulbs, or increasingly LED lights, set behind plastic diffusing screens which house a film that filters out most of the ultraviolet (UV) rays from the light.

You need to consider the light intensity, measured in lux, the light box throws out. You want to look really for a light that offers 10,000 lux, this is the recommended level as it is more effective and allows for shorter treatments. Here are some sources of light and the lux the emit:

  • Most living rooms in the evening: 300 lux
  • Typical office: 500 lux
  • Cloudy day outside: 3,000 lux
  • Sunny day outside: 10,000 lux
  • Really bright, sunny day: 100,000 lux

Think about where or how you intend to use the box – does it need to be portable? Does it matter if it is quite large? There are plenty of SAD lamps on the market – do your research and pick one that suits your needs.

How Much Does a SAD Lamp Cost?

Prices vary from anything between $40 and $300, don’t necessarily go for the cheapest (and likewise the more expensive won’t always be the best).

How Long Does it Take For a SAD Lamp to Work?

It varies from person to person, but most people will feel the benefits of light therapy within two to four days of starting treatment. Almost everyone who is going to respond to light therapy will should start to feel the benefit within two weeks, although it might be worth persevering longer. Make sure you keep up with a consistent programme of light therapy.

If you don’t start to feel a benefit consider the following:

  • Are you using the equipment correctly?
  • Do you have the right kind of light box?
  • Have you placed the box at eye level?
  • Are you sitting the right distance from it?
  • Are you using the light for long enough each day?

Person jumping from rock to rock

What Kind of Benefits Can I Expect to Get From Light Therapy?

Around 80% of people benefit from light therapy – although don’t necessarily expect it to cure all your winter difficulties.

  • Using light therapy typically can have any of the following effects:
  • You will feel more energetic,
  • The overwhelming need to sleep subsides,
  • There is less of a craving for cakes and chocolate
  • Your thought processes become clearer
  • Exercising actually seems an attractive or at least manageable proposition
  • You want to call friends, write emails, go to the movies, theatre, etc, etc.

In short you feel human again!

Do I Need to Stare at the Light?

Nope – just facing it with your eyes open is sufficient, the light therapy enters via the eyes, so all you need to do is ensure the light box is in your line of vision.

How Far Do I Need to be From the SAD Lamp For it to be Effective?

The answer varies for different boxes and different people. The manufacturers should give guidance on the distance you need to be from the light box but usually it is somewhere between one and three feet. The intensity of light exposure decreases sharply with the distance from the light source.

What Can I Do While I am Receiving Light Therapy?

Providing you have your eyes open, are within the proper range of the box and don’t move out of the line of the light source then the answer is pretty much whatever you want!

You can catch up on your emails, read the paper, watch TV, call a friend, have an early morning coffee, anything at all really.

What is the Best Time of the Day to Receive Light Therapy?

This is something that has been researched extensively and nearly all research conducted shows that light therapy is most effective if it is administered early in the morning – the early the better. Ideally you would get your dose of light therapy as close to waking up as possible.

Person looking bored

For How Long do I Need to Sit in Front of the SAD Lamp?

Again this varies from person to person and from light box to light box. Some people are very sensitive to light therapy and can only take five to ten minutes a day, but most people end up using their lightbox for around 30 minutes to an hour each day (often in more than one session).

If you are starting light therapy at the beginning of the winter season, just as you are experiencing your first symptoms of SAD or the winter blues start with about 20 minutes in the morning for the first week or so. If that has an effect then continue with that duration until your body tells you you need either more or less treatment.

If you are still feeling the symptoms increase your treatment time to around 30 or 40 minutes a day and then re-evaluate how you feel. Tinker with your light therapy schedule until you know what suits you.

Remember that as the days get longer and brighter in the Spring you can begin to taper off the duration of your light therapy accordingly.

Do I Need to Use Light Therapy Every Day?

Generally in the depths of winter most people with SAD will need light therapy every day. Skipping one day might not make too much of a difference but skipping light therapy for two days or more can lead to symptoms returning.

Essentially it is best not to skip more than one day of light therapy a week in order to feel well throughout the winter.

What Are the Dide Effects of Light Therapy?

Light therapy is generally, once you get into a routine, pretty well tolerated and side effects are usually mild. They can include:

  • Headaches
  • Eyestrain
  • Irritability or anxiety
  • Overactivity
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Dryness of the eyes
  • Dryness of the nasal passages and sinuses
  • Sunburn type reaction of the skin

Most of these sides effects can be managed by decreasing the length of the treatment, for example to 15 minutes a day, and then gradually building it up again or by moving slightly farther away from your SAD lamp until the symptoms subside.

Is Light Therapy Harmful to the Eyes?

Provided you use light therapy as recommended and following necessary consultation then no it isn’t.

If you do have any history of visual difficulties though be sure to consult your eye doctor before undertaking light therapy.

Girl looking excited

Hopefully this has answered many of the normal queries about SAD lamps and light therapy, but if you do have any further questions please just leave them below and I will try and answer them.



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