Sunshine in Winter: Using Light Therapy

Why a daily dose of light from a sunlamp can make you happier and give you more energy.

By: Melissa Romero

Since the 1980s, light therapy often has been cited as an effective way to treat seasonal affective disorder. The idea is that using sunlamps to bring more bright light indoors boosts mood and keeps up energy throughout the day.

Light therapy isn’t only for SAD sufferers. Researchers are studying it as a treatment for other conditions, such as jet lag, sleep disorders, and bulimia.

Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with SAD, light therapy is a safe treatment for winter doldrums. Those who suffer from mild symptoms might want to try it for two weeks, writes psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal in Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Light therapy involves 15 to 90 minutes of exposure to a special fluorescent lamp each day during winter. Evidence suggests that the bright light changes brain chemistry, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

To ensure that you’re using a sunlamp properly, here are tips from Neal Owens, a SAD sufferer in Frederick who helped the National Institute of Mental Health develop effective sunlamps.

Start with 15 to 30 minutes of light therapy early in the morning. Research shows that early-morning sessions are more effective in treating winter blues. The response rate to sunlamps is 80 percent at 6 am versus 40 percent at 8 am.

Don’t stare at the sunlamp. While some light should fall on you during each session, “don’t feel tied to the lamp,” says Owens, who founded the SunBox Company after experiencing the benefits of light therapy. Read a book, check your e-mail, or make breakfast. To avoid eye damage, never look directly into the light.

Use light therapy daily. Irritability and low energy may return if you skip light therapy for even two days, says Owens. Stick to it daily, and don’t stop cold turkey the first day of spring. Continue using the lamp through the spring or slowly wean yourself off.

Choose lamps that emit 10,000 lux. Studies have found that 10,000 lux is the magic number for treating seasonal affective disorder because it’s the amount of light emitted at sunrise. A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that patients reported mild headaches or eye problems at first, but the symptoms didn’t interfere with treatment for seasonal affective disorder.

Wait at least two to three weeks for results. Don’t fret if you still feel moody or down after a few days of light therapy. The benefits likely won’t kick in until weeks later.

Let There Be Light: Three Good Choices

These sunlamps, each developed by companies that specialize in light-therapy products, come highly recommended by Dr. Rosenthal—who has six such lamps in his DC home.

1. HappyLight Liberty by Verilux, $99.95. Although one-quarter the size of typical light boxes, this still emits the recommended 10,000 lux. Weighing two pounds, it’s travel-friendly and can stand on its own or be mounted on a wall.

2. SunBox Desk Light by SunBox Company, $225. This energy-efficient desk lamp allows you to get in 15 to 30 minutes of light therapy at the office. At almost two feet tall, it’s a bit large, but the neck’s height can be bent and adjusted.

3. SunRay II by SunBox Company, $399.The SunRay II features the classic design of light boxes, measuring 15½ inches tall and 23 inches wide. The light is delivered at a downward angle for maximum effectiveness, and the lux can be adjusted.

I Tried It: A Dawn-Simulator Lamp

The SunRise Digital Alarm Clock is $130 at

Until last month, I lived for two years in an apartment where I had a tiny, windowless bedroom. Every day I woke up in darkness. It made for good sleep on weekends, but I found it tough getting out of bed the rest of the time.

So, eager to wake up in a light-filled room and not a pitch-black dungeon, I jumped at the chance to try out a dawn-simulator lamp for a few weeks last winter.

The SunRise Digital Alarm Clock by the SunBox Company works like a normal alarm clock, but a white orb is attached to it. Fifteen to 90 minutes before the alarm goes off, the orb begins emitting steadily increasing light, reaching full brightness while the alarm beeps.

My excitement about trying it might have played a role, but the first morning I woke up a few minutes before my alarm time of 6:30 am and popped out of bed. As the weeks progressed, I continued to welcome the soft light in the morning. Even on days when I’d forgotten to set the alarm, I managed to wake up within 15 minutes of my normal alarm time.

While the amount of light emitted may be enough for someone sleeping in a room with windows, after a month of getting used to the faux sunlight, I could have used an even brighter bulb for my daily wake-up.

For nights when I had trouble falling asleep, the sunset feature worked wonders. Thirty minutes before bedtime, I turned the lamp to its brightest setting. Over the course of a half hour, the light dimmed until I was enveloped in darkness—although I often fell asleep before noticing.

How to Beat the Winter Blues ››