The 2022 Ultimate Guide to Bright Light Therapy– Carex icon
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The 2022 Ultimate Guide to Bright Light Therapy

Your "go-to" guide to understand what bright light therapy is, how it works, and what it's used for.

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Humans Spend 90% of Their Time Indoors.

This has become typical in our modern society, as our daily jobs and living spaces are inside, away from sunlight.

Yet, our bodies need sunshine to function correctly. And this lifestyle norm has a significant impact on our health.

Numerous studies have found light deprivation (not enough sun exposure) to create many problems, including:

  • An irregular sleep-wake cycle
  • Low energy
  • Depression & other mental illnesses
  • And physical health problems.

And in colder & darker months, these problems become even more prevalent as getting outside becomes harder.

This begs the question, how do we combat light deprivation?

The answer: bright light therapy via specialized sunlight imitating lamps

In this guide, we cover the essentials of light therapy, including what it is, how it works, the conditions it treats, and more. We highlight various studies to showcase light box therapy's effectiveness in treating various ailments.

If you find your energy, sleep, or mental health depleting (especially during colder months), this guide is for you. It offers insight into light therapy to help you determine if this treatment type is for you.

The Importance of Sunlight: What Happens When We Don't Get Enough

Before we get into the nitty gritty of light therapy, we must first highlight the importance of sunlight.

To make a long story short, we need sunlight to function. Sun exposure aids in the production of various vitamins and hormones, including:

  • Serotonin: This hormone plays a significant role in many bodily functions, including mood, appetite, sexual desire, memory, and energy levels. When exposed to sunshine, our bodies produce serotonin, which later converts to melatonin.
  • Melatonin: This crucial hormone is vital for our body's sleep-wake cycle, known as our circadian rhythm. When exposed to darkness, our bodies produce melatonin, which signals it's time to sleep. When exposed to morning sunlight, melatonin is produced sooner and helps us sleep more easily at night. Frequent sun exposure during the day (especially in the morning) is vital for synchronized melatonin production and a healthy sleep-wake schedule.
Exposure to sunlight aids in the production of a variety of vitamins and hormones which helps us sleep better, be more awake, and aids in better moods.

EXPERT INSIGHT

What Happens When Our Sun Exposure is Poor?

""Lack of light can affect your circadian rhythm, which is your body’s 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. Sun exposure stimulates the hypothalamus in your brain, which helps you control your circadian rhythm. When your circadian rhythm is dysregulated, your brain may produce too much melatonin and less serotonin." - Melissa Gentry, Life Coach

When we don't get enough sunlight, it causes melatonin and serotonin deficiencies which can cause many adverse effects, including:

  • Poor sleep
  • Mood instability
  • Low energy levels during daylight 
  • Poor ability to focus
  • And much, much more.

Our risk of light deprivation significantly increases during colder months when days become shorter and getting outside gets harder.

Americans spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors which is not nearly enough exposure to sunlight. Our lighting chart shows the optimal times to get 10000 LUX outside compared to indoor lighting.

So, if we need light to function correctly, can't we simply turn up our indoor lighting? While on the surface, this makes sense, it's a common misconception.

The reason being is these types of lights don't produce enough LUX. LUX is the intensity of the light being produced. The chart in this section offers insight into the amount of LUX standard indoor lighting produces compared to sunlight.

As you can see, it's not nearly enough.

This is where bright light therapy lamps (also called SAD lamps or happy lights) offer an alternative solution to artificial sunlight. These sun-imitating lamps are specially designed to produce 10,000 LUX, the needed amount to trigger serotonin and melatonin production.

In the next section, we go more in-depth into what these lamps are and how they work.

TL/DR
  • Sunlight is essential to a healthy life, providing us with essential vitamins and hormones.
  • It allows our body to produce melatonin which is important for a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
  • Our body also produces serotonin which regulates mood, appetite, sexual desire, memory, and energy levels.
  • During winter, our exposure to sunlight is limited, leading to conditions such as insomnia and seasonal affective disorder.
  • Bright light therapy lamps provide an alternative to sunlight to combat these conditions.

What is Bright Light Therapy?

Bright light therapy involves exposing your eyes to an artificial light source that emits intense light at 10,000 LUX to mimic sunlight.

This exposure tricks your body into producing melatonin and serotonin. Light therapy is especially beneficial when sunlight exposure is limited, such as during the fall and winter months.

Mental health professionals frequently recommend this treatment method as it's proven to relieve symptoms caused by seasonal affective disorder, circadian rhythm disorder, depression, and more.

These lamps help replace lost sunlight to allow us to fall asleep more easily at night and feel happier and more energized during the day. Bright light therapy is also called:

  • Phototherapy
  • Heliotherapy
  • Sunshine therapy
  • And chromotherapy
What is bright light therapy diagram

A Brief History

While light therapy has gained momentum, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, they're nothing new. Humans have been writing about the importance of sunlight since 400 BC.

Below, we've highlighted important events in the development of this treatment.

TL/DR
  • Light therapy is eye exposure to bright therapy lights that produce 10,000 LUX to mimic sunlight.
  • Fall and winter light therapy are most common, as this is when sunlight is limited and seasonal depression is most prevalent.
  • These lamps cause the body to produce serotonin and melatonin, which improves energy, sleep, and mood.
  • Its goes as far back as 400 BC when the importance of sunlight was first studied.
  • Today, studies have proven its effectiveness and it's regularly recommended and used.

Does Bright Light Therapy Work?

You may be wondering, do therapy lamps work?

While sitting in front of a lamp to enhance your well-being sounds too good to be true, it does work!

Since the 1990s, numerous studies have found light exposure therapy to be effective in treating various conditions.

2005 research found SAD lamp usage to treat various issues and disorders. The research found morning exposure to bright light therapy helps patients:

  • Manage sleep disorders
  • Develop regular sleep cycles
  • And allow them to sleep through the night.

It also found bright light therapy was effective in easing the symptoms of SAD, non-seasonal depression, senile dementia, and jetlag.

Additionally, a study done in 2015 found that using indoor sun lamps for depression was just as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy in improving symptoms of acute depression.

Conditions light therapy help includes sleep disorders, S.A.D., non seasonal depression, senile dementia, jet lag, acute depression, and shift work adjustment

What Studies Say

Light therapy is effective in treating a wide array of sleep disorders

Sleep Disorders

A systematic review and meta-analysis collected 53 studies with a total of 1,154 participants concluded that light therapy is an effective treatment for:

  • General sleep problems
  • Circadian rhythm sleep disorders 
  • Insomnia
  • And Alzheimer-related sleep problems.
Morning light therapy is most effective

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Another meta-analysis studied data from 14 research centers with a combined 332 patients over five years.

The analysis found 2,500 LUX intensity light exposure for a minimum of 2 hours daily for one week resulted in significant remissions of seasonal affective disorder.

The study also found morning light therapy to be more effective than midday or evening.

What Experts Say About SAD Lamp Use

"Light therapy, phototherapy, or heliotherapy is used to remedy seasonal affective disorder and major depressive disorder with the use of natural or artificial light. As a mental health professional, although light therapy might not be able to completely cure the symptoms I believe it helps to ease them." - Chris Norris, Certified Sleep Science Coach

Light therapy can be as effective if not more in treating depression compared to antidepressants

Non-Seasonal Depression

A 2005 review article by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine collected and reviewed various light therapy studies on non-seasonal depression. The review found that light therapy achieved what antidepressant drugs did in as little as one week compared to 4-16 weeks.

Twenty-seven patients with non-seasonal MDD were given seven days of light therapy and obtained a 24% benefit to light therapy over dim light.

Another study used 3,000-4,000 LUX ceiling lamps on 28 unmedicated patients. This resulted in a depression rating scale improvement of more than 50% in 17 cases.

In a blinded trial, 29 inpatients with non-seasonal recurrent MDD achieved a 64.1% increase in rating scores after three weeks of two-hour 5,000 LUX morning light treatment. These results proved similar to those who received 150 mg of imipramine daily or a combination of light with imipramine.

A five-week study treated outpatients with chronic MDD of over two years with morning bright light therapy. The study found a remission rate of 50%, while a control group given low-density negative air ionization achieved only minor improvement.

Reducing daytime sleep in those with dementia

Senile Dementia

A common symptom and result of dementia are sleep disturbances. And because of light therapy's effectiveness in treating sleep disorders, it's thought it could help those with dementia as well.

Studies on Alzheimer's patients have found bright light therapy effective in treating associated sleep disturbances. However, these results only apply to those:

  • With a shorter duration of the disease
  • And in a mild-moderate stage of their condition.

A three-week study treated 37 institutionalized patients aged 70 to 93 with bright light therapy. The study found a significant improvement in sleep and general cognitive abilities.

Reducing jet lag for eastward travel via light therapy
Jet Lag

When traveling to other time zones, it's common for our circadian rhythm to be thrown off. This can result in:

  • Increased daytime sleepiness
  • Poor sleep duration & quality
  • And an impairment in performance

One study found light therapy to be an effective method of preventing jet lag.

The study found bright light therapy effective in creating an advance or delay in circadian rhythms, known as a "phase shift."

Subjects exposed to three days of light treatment experienced an average circadian rhythm shift of about 2.1 hours. Using a light therapy lamp to prevent jet lag tricks our circadian rhythm into adjusting to a new time zone.

Reducing insomnia, anxiety, and depression in evening/night shift workers

Shift Work Adjustment

Shift work adjustment is a challenging aspect many careers, such as nursing and truck drivers, face. Our circadian rhythms rely heavily on a consistent sleep-wake cycle. Irregular sleep-wake cycles are a recipe for sleep disturbances, low energy levels, and even mental health fatigue.

Bright light therapy poses a solution to shift work adjustment. 

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine stated that using a light therapy lamp can be effective in "circadian resetting." The idea is to use a therapy lamp before one's bedtime continually. The chart below effectively shows this routine.

Example of Using Bright Light Therapy for Circadian Resetting  

The Weekend Before Night Shift
(Shift starts at 10:00 PM)

Expected
Bedtime
Bright Light Exposure
(minimum of 1-2 hours)
Day 110:00 PMStart at 8:00 or 9:00 PM
Day 212:00-1:00 AMStart at 10:00 or 11:00 PM

The Weekend Before Day Shift After Night Shift
(May need 2+ days to phase advance properly, shift starts at 6:00 AM)

Expected
Wakeup Time
Bright Light Exposure
(minimum of 4-5 hours)
Day 16:00 PMStart at 9:00 PM
Day 23:00-4:00 PMStart at 7:00 or 8:00 PM

Note: This method can worsen sleep-wake symptoms without knowing the patient's endogenous pacemaker. It's always best to seek medical advice before attempting this.

According to Mayo Clinic, light therapy can treat skin disorders like psoriasis. However, this involves using a lamp that emits UV radiation, which differs from the lamps we will discuss in this guide.

Bright light therapy lamps for sleep and mood disorders filter out UV rays to protect your eyes and skin. Lamps (such as tanning beds) designed to emit UV rays are not an effective alternative to bright light therapy. They emit harmful UV rays and are not proven to treat any illness or disorder.

Expert Insight

Certain lights such as full spectrum lights, can help with mild depression. Sometimes, people feel an uplift in mood after exposure to these lights. You can also buy vitamin D3 lights to help mimic the sun too. These lights mimic the sunlight, which can be hard to get in the winter months. Bright light therapy usually involves reading near a special type of light for 40 minutes a day. A more natural light therapy would be laying outside in the sun on a beach on a summer day.”
-Katie Ziskind, Licensed Therapist

The Pros & Cons of Light Therapy Lamps

There are many benefits to light therapy. It's quickly become a go-to for many that struggle with SAD or other mood conditions.We've highlighted the pros and cons of light therapy below to give you a better idea if this treatment method is right for you.

PROSCONS
Noninvasive: Light therapy lamps are a noninvasive method for treating ailments such as SAD. Users only have to sit in front of them for 30 minutes daily. Many bright light therapy lamps can double as task lamps.

 Safe: Therapy lamps are generally safe. Proper lights effectively block harmful UV rays, keeping the user safe.

 Convenient: Therapy lamps make the perfect addition to any morning routine. They are easy and convenient to use anywhere.

 Produce little to no side effects: Unlike traditional treatments such as medications, light therapy produces little to no side effects.
Side effects and complications can occur: There have been instances of users experiencing reactions such as headaches, insomnia, sunburn, fatigue, dry eyes and nose, and hypomania (an extended period of heightened mood).
TL/DR
  • Light therapy has been heavily studied since the 1990s and is proven effective.
  • Bright light therapy has been clinically studied and shown positive effects in reducing seasonal affective disorder, depression, sleep disorder, jet lag, senile dementia, and shift work adjustment.
  • Light therapy is relatively convenient, safe, and with few side effects.
  • Some side effects can include headaches, sunburn, fatigue, dry eyes/nose, and extended periods of heightened mood.
Carex Day-Light Classic Plus Light Therapy Lamp
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Rated the #1 Light Therapy Lamp for SAD

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"Best for SAD. Designed to improve sleep, boost your mood, and improve concentration, it's highly recommended for individuals who experience SAD." -VeryWell Mind

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What Experts Say About Light Therapy

Emma McAdam

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
https://www.therapynutshell.com/

Doctor Jo

Physical Therapist
https://www.askdoctorjo.com/

Dr. Carrie Lam, MD, FAAMFM, ABAARM

https://www.DRLAMCOACHING.COM

When you are exposed to light, body is signaled to release the hormone cortisol, which is necessary for fighting stress. It also alerts the brain, thereby determining your mood. This is how your body reacts during the early stages of stress.

Melissa Gentry

Sex, Relationship, Intimacy, and Life Coach
https://www.healingthelove.com/

Lack of light can affect your circadian rhythm, which is your body’s 24-hour sleep wake cycle. Sun exposure stimulates the hypothalamus in your brain which helps you control your circadian rhythm. When your circadian rhythm is dysregulated, your brain may produce too much melatonin (the sleep hormone) and less serotonin (a happiness hormone responsible for stabilizing your mood and feelings of well-being). So in short, lack of light causes you to feel tired and unhappy.

Jared Heathman, MD

Online Psychiatrist
https://www.yourfamilypsychiatrist.com/

Seasonal Affective Disorder typically presents in colder months with less daylight. A natural way to combat this disorder involves shifting your schedule to take advantage of sunlight. You could take your lunch outside, take small breaks in the sunlight, or adjust your work hours to allow a sunlight exposed walk. An additional option is a device called a light box. You can buy them online at places like amazon.com. Most start by spending about 30 minutes under them in the morning. You can read or perform other tasks under them. It simulates sunlight to give our mind a boost. 

Chris Norris

Certified Sleep Science Coach
https://sleepstandards.com/

Light therapy, phototherapy, or heliotherapy is used to remedy seasonal affective disorder and major depressive disorder with the use of natural or artificial light. As a mental health professional, although light therapy might not be able to completely cure the symptoms I believe it helps to ease them.

Lynell Ross

Resource Director
https://testprepinsight.com/

Light therapy is an effective and low impact means of treating SAD. Light therapy works by replacing missing natural sunshine with artificial light. In terms of how our brain functions and processes this treatment, artificial light works just like natural sunlight.

SHARON GILCHREST O’NEILL, ED..S.

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Find Her Books Here

In my psychotherapy work over many years I have seen patients who were greatly helped during the winter months with light therapy. For those who had never experienced depression, using light therapy first for what seemed to be associated with SAD was the best course of treatment, and often was all that was needed.

The every morning protocol has to be followed throughout the dark months to maintain effectiveness. 

Catherine Darley, ND

Founder
http://www.naturalsleepmedicine.net/
  • Morning bright light is the most important cue to keep our circadian rhythm, ie. body clock, synchronized with the environment. People ideally get 20 mins of outdoor light in the first couple hours of their day, plus bursts of 10 mins or more every couple hours.
  • If they don’t have the opportunity to get outside, a lightbox that provides full-spectrum light can be substituted.
  • Tip – it needs to be placed the correct distance from the eyes as per manufacturer instructions, and this does differ by brand. Also it should be placed so that the person is not looking directly at it, but the light is falling on the eyes from an angle.
  • In the sleep disorders office it can be used as part of treatment for circadian rhythm disorders like delayed sleep-wake phase, shift work disorder, or jet lag. The timing of light for these disorders if very important and people should see a physician for these conditions. 

Shanon Henry

Psy D
https://ezcareclinic.com/

Here are some features to look for in a light therapy boxes (SAD lamps):

  • Safety: UV-free, not designed to treat skin conditions they won't be effective.
  • Specs: The lamp should generate 10,000 lux (light intensity measurement combined with area) of cool-white fluorescent light.
  • Size: Look for a lamp with a light surface area of around 12 by 15 inches.
  • Personal style and needs: Depends on lifestyle which activity you will do while using it and should be compact to store and matches with decor.

Vinay Saranga M.D.

Psychiatrist
https://www.sarangapsychiatry.com/

The grays and blues that fill the landscape as fall and winter replace the sunshine and warmth of spring can have a stronger and stronger impact on the way some people feel. On top of that, add in a pandemic and a holiday season that is going to, in most cases, not be spent with friends and families, and symptoms of depression will be more common. One way to help you feel better is bright light therapy. The first thing you can do is to simply add more light to your day. Scientists have found that bright light changes the chemical balance in the brain, so when some people are exposed to less and less bright light those important changes don’t take place as often.”

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Who Should Use Bright Light Therapy?

Bright light therapy treats various conditions related to poor mental health, sleep, and energy levels.

General symptoms and signs you may benefit from light therapy include:

  • Feeling depressed all the time or during the fall/winter months
  • Low daytime energy levels (even when you've slept adequately)
  • Sleeping too much, too little, or inconsistently

These are generalized symptoms that can be a sign of underlying conditions. Consult your doctor for a better idea. As mentioned prior, healthcare professionals recommend light therapy to treat various conditions. Light therapy may be an option for you if you've been diagnosed with the following:

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Known as seasonal depression, symptoms include:

  • Feeling depressed during the same months yearly
  • Low energy
  • Trouble sleeping or oversleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Weight gain
  • And feelings of hopelessness.

SAD symptoms regularly begin in the fall months and persist into the winter. Those who live in northern areas (the dark blue areas on the map) may be more susceptible to this disorder. These locations receive much less winter sunlight compared to other areas.

If you experience a milder form of these symptoms, you may experience the "winter blues." This is the more common form of seasonal depression, which can also be treated with light therapy.

However, those with SAD should use a "clinical-grade" lamp, which we'll explain later in this guide.

Areas Most Affected by SAD (Winter Blues)

Depression

The symptoms of depression are similar to SAD. They persist year-round and include: 

  • Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Trouble sleeping or oversleeping
  • Low energy
  • Difficulty thinking concentrating, making decisions, or remembering things
  • And weight gain or weight loss.

A critical difference between seasonal and non-seasonal depression is seasonal depression is dictated by the time of year. Non-seasonal depression occurs at any time of year, and its causes include various things such as life events, your surroundings, stress, and other factors.

Sleep Disorders

Light therapy can treat various sleep disorders, including insomnia. Common symptoms include:

  • Feeling exhausted during the day
  • Having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night
  • And having an unusual sleep and wake cycle.

Jet Lag

This temporary sleep disorder typically occurs when you've traveled across time zones in a short period. Symptoms include:

  • Disturbed slee
  • Daytime fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Stomach problems
  • And mood changes.

Shift Work Adjustments

You may benefit from light therapy if you have a job that frequently shifts your sleep-wake schedule. It can help sync your body's internal clock to adjust to unusual shift schedules. Treatment can help enhance night-shift performance.

Senile Dementia

This condition tends to affect one's sleep cycle and mood. Light therapy can help ease symptoms which include:

  • Night wandering
  • Sundowning
  • And daytime sleepiness.

Who Should Not Use Light Therapy

While light therapy is a relatively safe treatment, there are a few cases in which you should avoid it. These include:

  • If you have bipolar disorder. Light therapy may trigger a manic episode.
  • If your skin is sensitive to light. Light therapy can worsen conditions such as systemic lupus erythematosus, which create skin-light sensitivity.
  • If you're on medications that cause light sensitivity. Certain medications such as antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and St. John's Wort can cause your skin to be more sensitive to light. If you're on any medications, check if they cause this.
  • If your eyes are vulnerable or sensitive to light damage. One side effect of light therapy is eye strain. If you have sensitive eyes, light treatment can hurt your eyes.

Always consult your doctor before starting light therapy to ensure it is the proper treatment.

TL/DR
  • Bright light treatment is an excellent holistic solution for those experiencing seasonal affective disorder, depression, sleep disorders, jet lag, shift work adjustment, and senile dementia.
  • Bright light therapy may not be suitable for you if you have bipolar disorder, conditions that cause light sensitivity, are on medications that cause light sensitivity, or have eye conditions that make you vulnerable to light damage.

How to Use a SAD Lamp

For best results from your SAD lamp, begin your sessions shortly after waking and use the light for 20 to 30 minutes each morning or as recommended by your doctor.

It's even better to start your sessions at the same time each morning. Consistency will help your body and internal clock adapt to seeing the light at this specific time daily. Your body will be exposed to your light, think it's sunlight, and start producing those essential hormones.

How to use light therapy lamps: For best results from your SAD lamp, begin your sessions shortly after waking and use the lamp for 20 to 30 minutes each morning or as recommended by your doctor.

Timing: When and How Long to Use Your Light Therapy Lamp

When beginning bright light therapy, start with short 20-30 minute treatment sessions, gradually increasing as you see fit.

Regarding your light therapy schedule, most users with Seasonal Affective Disorder start treatments in the early fall when cloudy days become more regular. Those with fall/winter depression may start earlier in the year and continue after the rainy seasons if their condition is more severe.

It's vital to avoid using your lamp for too long or too late into the day. Doing so can cause your sleep-wake schedule to become unbalanced, resulting in insomnia or an irregular sleep cycle. Avoid using light therapy at night, unless you have a job working night shifts.

Correctly Positioning Your Bright Light Therapy Lamp 

For light therapy to be highly effective, correct positioning is vital. When using your lamp:

  • Your eyes should be approximately in the center of the light, with the lamp screen tilted at roughly 15 degrees.
  • Ideally, the lamp should project light over you during each session (to best mimic the sun). 
  • Try not to turn your head away from the light. Doing so will hinder it from shining into your eyes to trigger melatonin/serotonin production.
  • Sit between 16" and 24" from the screen (this will vary based on your light). If this is too close for comfort, you can sit further away for longer sessions.
  • Do not stare directly into the light; try reading, working, eating, etc., during each session.
Correctly Positioning Your Bright Light Therapy Lamp

How you use your lamp will vary based on its specifications. Consult your manufacturer's guidelines for optimal usage. This distance is usually between 16" and 24" from the screen. You can see the specs for our lights here.

It's important to note that your light will weaken as the bulbs get older, losing their 10,000 LUX intensity. It's essential to replace your bulbs after two years, even if they haven't burnt out, to keep treatment effective.

Keep Track of Your Treatment Sessions

The Center for Environmental Therapeutics recommends keeping a log of your progress before and after treatment sessions.

Keeping track of your mood, energy levels, and eating habits will help you identify your sessions' effectiveness. Not only that, but they'll give you an idea if you should increase session length and occurrence.

Download our light therapy treatment tracker to keep track of your sessions: 

Take Note of Side Effects

Mayoclinic notes that bright light therapy is generally safe. However, there can be a few minor side effects of bright light therapy, including:

  • Eyestrain
  • Headache
  • Nausea 
  • Irritability or agitation
  • Mania, euphoria, hyperactivity, or anxiety associated with bipolar disorder

Usually, these side effects subside rather quickly. You can manage these side effects by adjusting:

  • Your treatment time
  • How often you sit in front of your therapy lamp
  • And how close you sit.

For safety, consult your doctor regarding side effects.

One factor to note is to check if any medications you take cause photosensitivity. These medications can make your skin sensitive to light, resulting in rashes or sunburn. You can see a list of drugs that may cause photosensitivity here.

Combine Your Treatments

Bright light therapy is highly recommended and used treatment for many different conditions. However, it should not be the only treatment used when treating ailments such as seasonal affective disorder, insomnia, and more.

A 2015 study found that bright light therapy is more effective when combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy. Try implementing other treatments and wellness exercises such as:

  • Yoga
  • Meditation 
  • Exercise 
  • And outdoor activities.
Light therapy is more effective when combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy. Try implementing other types of treatments and wellness exercises such as yoga, meditation, exercise, and outdoor activities.

Mistakes to Avoid

Some users report light therapy not working for them. And while it's not guaranteed to work for everyone, there are a few mistakes you can avoid to improve your chance of success. These include:

  • Not sitting close enough
  • Wrong angle: Not letting the light hit your eyes or using light therapy with your eyes closed
  • Bad timing: Not incorporating the light consistently into your day
  • Not changing the light therapy bulb
  • Not incorporating other treatment methods

EXPERT TIP

How to Use a Sun Lamp

"It needs to be placed the correct distance from the eyes as per manufacturer instructions, and this does differ by brand. Also, it should be placed so that the person is not looking directly at it, but the light is falling on the eyes from an angle." - Catherine Darley, MD

TL/DR
  • Light therapy is easy and safe to use.
  • Sit in front of your lamp for 30 minutes each morning within one hour of waking.
  • Avoid using light therapy in the evening as this can throw off your sleep-wake schedule.
  • Take note of your treatments and the results (especially any side effects).
  • It's vital to accompany other health practices such as exercise, a healthy diet, and mindfulness.
  • Avoid common mistakes such as not sitting close enough, sitting at the wrong angle, wrong/inconsistent timing, and not accompanying other treatment methods.
Selecting a Bright Light Therapy Lamp

Selecting a Bright Light Therapy Lamp

Types of Bright Light Therapy Devices

Before implementing light therapy into your routine, you must be aware of the various device types available. Below, we explain the four most common types of devices available.

  • Light Box: These are some of the most popular styles of bright light therapy. They're typically compact and point upward from an angled position. Light therapy boxes are more compact, making them much more portable and easier to use in tight spaces. However, it should be noted they do not produce light therapy from a downward angle. This makes them less desirable for those with more severe conditions. 
  • Desk Lamp: These are very similar to light boxes. The key differentiator is these styles of light therapy lamps shine downward from an upward position and are typically larger. This doctor-recommended feature is more suitable for those with severe conditions. 
  • Light Visor: This is a more portable version of bright light therapy. Light therapy visors have the appearance of a tennis visor and have LEDs attached underneath the brim. This shines light directly into your eyes from an upward angle. 
  • Dawn Simulator: These have built-in technology which gets brighter and dimmer to simulate the sun rising and setting.

What's the Difference Between SAD Lamps and Regular Office or Desk Lamps?

A common question, these are the key differences:

  • Lamps that simulate sunlight are specifically designed to treat seasonal depression and other conditions.
  • SAD lamps produce a higher light intensity (LUX) to trigger serotonin and melatonin production (often 5-20 times more LUX).
  • Most indoor lights have warmer color temperatures, whereas therapeutic lights have cooler color temperatures to simulate daylight to promote awakeness.
  • SAD lamps have screens to reduce glare and UV exposure.

Standard lighting brightens your environment, whereas SAD lights brighten your environment and mimic sunlight for serotonin and melatonin production.

Wellness Lamps vs. Therapeutic Lamps

With a boom in popularity, many wellness lamps have begun appearing online. And while they deliver effective light therapy, they're not as effective as therapeutic lamps (clinical-grade). Consider these differences:

  • Therapeutic Lamps (Clinical-Grade): These lights are typically larger and shine downward from an upward position. Healthcare professionals recommend them to those with diagnosed conditions. Their design makes them more adequate for treating severe conditions.
  • Wellness Lamps: These lights are smaller and may not produce the LUX needed for therapeutic benefit. These are adequate for those not diagnosed with any condition or experiencing the winter blues.

What to Look for in a SAD Lamp?

When selecting a lightbox for your bright light therapy, consider these features:

10,000 LUX

Arguably the most critical factor, LUX, is the amount of light that reaches a surface from a given distance. For maximum effectiveness, 10,000 LUX is the optimal amount. Anything higher shows no additional benefits.

IMPORTANT: It's vital to be wary of smaller sunlight boxes claiming to be 10,000 LUX, especially if you have a clinical condition. While these lamps may produce the recommended amount of LUX, it's typically from a shorter distance. This can be ineffective if you have a severe case.

Checklist for selecting a SAD Lamp for maximum light therapy benefits

Surface Area (Screen Size)

A lamp with a large surface area produces more LUX at further distances, ensuring adequate light reaches your eyes. Wellness-grade lamps have smaller surface areas but are ideal for confined spaces.

Size

Clinical-grade lamps are larger to produce the best results. However, wellness-grade lights are usually smaller. If space is an issue, a compact size may be ideal.

Angle

For clinical conditions, a light pointing down is essential. These lights shine light downward to enter the eye from an angle higher than eye level. Light enters your eyes from above to better mimic sunlight at this angle.

UV Filtration

A commonly asked question is, "do SAD lamps emit UV?"

Yes, therapy lamps produce ultraviolet radiation (UV), which can damage your skin and eyes. For this reason, you'll want to ensure your UV lamp for SAD features a screen over it to filter out UV. Most modern lamps do. However, you'll want to check the specifications to be safe.

Your Lifestyle/Space

Another critical aspect to consider is your lifestyle and space. You may want a more compact-size light therapy lamp if confined to smaller areas. These aren't as effective and require longer treatment times.

Clinical-grade lamps are oversized, which makes them more effective. However, they may not be an option for small spaces.

Aside from your living space, another thing to consider is how often you travel. If you travel frequently, you may benefit from a compact therapy lamp.

These smaller lamps are portable to fit in bags for on-the-go use. You can take them with you on your travels to keep your sleep-wake schedule intact if in a different time zone.

TL/DR
  • Therapy lamps differ from standard lamps as they deliver 5-20 times more LUX.
  • The various types of light therapy devices include light boxes, desk lamps, visors, and dawn simulators.
  • Those with intense conditions (such as SAD) will see quicker results with clinical-grade lamps (these are larger). If diagnosed, clinical-grade therapy lights for depression are ideal.
  • An effective therapy lamp delivers 10,000 LUX, has a large surface area, and ideally angles above the eye.
  • Your lamp needs a UV filter to prevent eye/skin damage.
  • Smaller therapy lamps are more practical for smaller living spaces and travel use.

Bright Light Therapy Term Glossary

Frequently Asked Light Therapy Questions

How long does it take for light therapy to work?

The time it takes for light therapy to work depends on a variety of factors, such as:

  • Sleep schedule and time
  • Eating habits
  • Caffeine intake
  • Physical activity
  • And preexisting conditions.

Light therapy can take as little as 2-3 days or even 2-3 weeks. It's always best to accompany light treatment with a healthy diet, physical activity, and a healthy amount of sleep.When light therapy does work, you'll feel more energy, sleep better, and have improved mental well-being.

How long does it take to reset your circadian rhythm?

Your circadian rhythm is at the center of why light therapy works. But resetting your circadian rhythm and how long it takes depends on the condition. It can take up to a month or even longer, based on your condition. If you're simply adjusting to a new time zone, it can take as little as one day or up to one month if the trip is longer.

Can I use light therapy all day?

Yes, you can. However, do it with caution.

Those with more sensitivity to light may experience a feeling similar to consuming caffeine before bed. All-day use may result in too much light exposure throwing your circadian rhythm.It's always best practice to ease yourself into light therapy with 30-minute morning sessions. Then you can increase your treatment as you see fit.

Does light therapy help anxiety?

Yes, light therapy can help with anxiety. Studies found light therapy to help reduce anxiety in adults. 

Can you use a sad light too much?

Yes, but this depends on a case-by-case basis.It is always best to use light therapy in the early morning when the sun is rising. There have been reports of users being unable to sleep because they used their therapy lamp all or later in the day.

What are the health benefits of sunlight?

The sun is essential to being and feeling healthy. Exposure to sunlight:

  • Provides us with a healthy dose of vitamin D for stronger bones and an immune system
  • Increases our sleep quality 
  • Aids in weight loss by shrinking fat cells 
  • And improves energy and mood levels by increasing our serotonin levels.

Can Light Therapy Improve Sleep?

When used consistently, using a lightbox for sleep is effective in improving sleep quality and time by helping you maintain your circadian rhythm.

Light therapy lamps mimic sunlight which is key to your sleep-wake cycle. When thrown off, it's common for your circadian rhythm to become unbalanced, causing sleep disturbances.Light therapy lamps trick your body into producing more serotonin and melatonin, vital to healthy sleep. Use these lamps to sleep better at night or adjust to a shifting work schedule.

What Time Should I do Light Therapy?

It's best to start light therapy treatments within an hour of waking in the early morning for a minimum of 30 minutes. Doing so mimics the rising sun and tricks your body into producing serotonin. An added tip is to look up your area's sunrise and start light therapy according to that time (or earlier during winter periods).

Conclusion - Key Takeaways

We've covered a lot in this guide. By now, you have a better understanding of what light therapy is, how it works, and how it can enhance your quality of life. To recap:

  • Light therapy lamps mimic sunlight to boost serotonin and melatonin production.
  • These hormones are vital in regulating sleep, energy, and mood levels.
  • This treatment is generally safe and recommended by healthcare professionals.
  • They're used and proven to treat various conditions, including seasonal affective disorder, depression, sleep disorders, and dementia.
  • Successful treatment depends upon the lamp's specifications, its method of use, and other best practices such as a healthy diet, mindfulness, and exercise.

We want to know: What's your opinion of light therapy? Have you had any experience with it, and what have your results been? What are your top tips for light therapy?

Leave a comment below. We'd love to know!

About the Author

Brandon Landgraf is the Digital Marketing Manager for Carex Health Brands. He finds passion and fulfillment in creating content that enhances, improves, and enlivens others' quality of life. All of his written work is formulated to not only offer essential advice and tips but back it with proven studies and experts. His mission is to connect with readers and provide steps to make their lives better.

You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.

About Carex Health Brands

Carex is your one-stop shop for home medical equipment and for products that assist caregivers with providing the best possible support and care for their loved ones. Carex Health Brands has been the branded leader in in-home, self-care medical products for over 35 years. Our goal is to improve the lives of our customers by bring them quality products that bring dignity back to their lives. With our three nationally distributed brands, Carex Health Brands serves national, regional and independent food, drug and mass retailers along with wholesalers, distributors and medical dealers.

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