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Depression is a serious mood disorder that can affect just about every aspect of your life, from your moods and feelings to your ability to maintain relationships. It’s remarkably common, with an estimated 10.5 percent of US women affected per year as of 2020, respectively.
Numerous treatments exist for depression, including psychotherapy and antidepressants. One form of treatment that’s grown in popularity recently is the use of artificial sunlight lamps, which work by providing your body with a source of light to increase neurotransmitter production.
Most sunlight lamps for depression are used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression that can occur during the winter months.
The ideas behind sunlight lamps are interesting, and there’s real evidence to show that they’re effective at helping people with seasonal affective disorder. However, research is mixed on the potential benefits of sun lamps and bright-light therapy for other mental health conditions.
Below, we’ve explained what sunlight lamps are, as well as how they may work to treat certain forms of clinical depression.
We’ve also listed other treatment options that you may want to consider if you feel depressed, including evidence-based antidepressant medications, forms of behavioral therapy and simple changes that you can make to your habits and lifestyle.
Sunlight lamps are exactly what they sound like — lamps that output light, purportedly to reduce the severity of depression symptoms. They’re designed to work as an artificial source of light to either replace or supplement natural sunlight.
Lamps for treating depression are referred to under a variety of different names, including “light therapy lamps,” “light therapy boxes,” “sun lamps” and “SAD lamps.”
To understand how sunlight lamps work, it’s important to quickly go over some of the basics of depression.
Depression comes in several varieties, including major depressive disorder (MDD, or “clinical depression”), postpartum depression (a form of depression that develops after childbirth) and depression with atypical features.
Each type of depression can occur in distinct circumstances and may involve its own range of specific symptoms. Our guide to the types of depression provides more information about how these forms of depressive disorder differ from one another.
While experts don’t know exactly what causes depression, they do know that some factors are associated with a higher risk of becoming depressed. These include having a family history of depression, being physically unwell or experiencing a major life change or stress.
One form of depressive illness is seasonal affective disorder — a type of depression that often develops during fall and winter.
If you have seasonal affective disorder, you may start to develop symptoms of depression that happen at the same time as seasonal changes. These symptoms are sometimes referred to as the “winter blues” or “seasonal depression.”
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include:
Feeling depressed either most of the time or all of the time
Losing interest in your normal hobbies, interests and activities
Finding it difficult to concentrate, feel energetic or sleep normally
Experiencing changes in your appetite, eating habits and weight
Withdrawing from friendships and other important relationships
Developing thoughts that involve death or suicide
So, how does sunlight fit into this? Although experts aren’t yet aware of the precise causes of seasonal affective disorder, some studies suggest that exposure to sunlight may play a role in its development.
More specifically, exposure to natural light is believed to manage your levels of molecules that produce the hormone serotonin — a neurotransmitter that controls your moods, happiness and feelings of anxiety. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression.
As the days start to become shorter and natural light becomes less available during winter, it’s possible that your body’s ability to produce serotonin declines.
Experts also believe that sunlight may be involved in other internal processes that are involved in regulating mood and preventing depression.
For example, a lack of exposure to natural light is associated with vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is believed to play a major role in promoting serotonin activity, and a lack of vitamin D caused by low sun exposure may further contribute to the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.
Finally, sunlight is involved in your body’s circadian rhythm — the naturally occurring sleep-wake cycle that helps you to feel tired at night and awake and alert during the daytime.
Some research suggests that people prone to seasonal affective disorder have higher levels of melatonin — a hormone triggered by darkness that increases sleepiness — than normal. When daylight is limited, these high levels of melatonin may contribute to tiredness and sleep issues.
Sunlight lamps work by imitating natural sunlight and giving people prone to seasonal affective disorder a reliable light source that’s available all year, regardless of seasonal patterns.
Put simply, they work by imitating sunlight — something that can be helpful if you live in an area with limited natural sun and dark winter months.
Sunlight lamps come in a variety of forms. Many feature a fluorescent lightbox that puts out full-spectrum visible light at a range of intensity levels. They’re typically designed for use between 30 minutes and two hours a day, depending on the specific condition and light level.
The theory behind sunlight lamps is that by imitating natural daylight, they can trigger the same increase in vitamin D and serotonin that occurs naturally during contact with sunlight.
So, is this theory correct, and do sunlight lamps for depression actually provide any therapeutic benefits?
Currently, researchers haven’t yet reached a firm conclusion on whether or not artificial sunlight lamps are effective at treating all forms of depression. However, there’s real evidence that they may help people with seasonal affective disorder.
In a review published in the Einstein Journal of Biology and Medicine in 2017, a team of experts noted that bright light therapy has been studied for almost four decades as a treatment for SAD, and that it’s widely viewed as an effective first-line treatment.
Although precise findings are mixed, several reviews and meta-analyses have also found that it offers benefits for people with seasonal affective disorder.
For example, a review and meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Psychiatry noted that although study quality is mixed overall, controlled trials suggest that bright light treatment is efficacious for seasonal affective disorder.
The review and meta-analysis also stated that bright light therapy was an effective treatment for nonseasonal depression, with an effect size similar to that of antidepressants.
Another review published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry in 2019 noted that light therapy appears to be effective as a treatment approach for both seasonal affective disorder and other forms of depression, and that it could be used on its own or as a form of adjunct therapy.
The review also noted that bright light treatment should be personalized based on the specific subtype of depression, its efficacy and its tolerability for each person.
With this said, research into artificial light treatments isn’t perfect. In a critical review published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2015, the authors noted that most studies of bright light therapy have methodological problems and that findings can vary based on study selection.
In general, although research appears to show positive effects, the quality of studies can vary significantly, and there’s still a large amount that we don’t know about using artificial lighting to simulate daylight hours or treat specific forms of mental illness.
As such, it’s best to talk to your mental health provider about your options before considering any sun lamp or other light therapy device to treat depression.
If you’ve been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, depression or a similar form of mood disorder, or if you simply feel prone to the winter blues during weeks with limited sunlight, using a SAD lamp may help to relieve your symptoms and improve the way you feel.
Sunlight lamps can vary significantly in quality and price. While there’s no reason to overpay for features you’re unlikely to ever use, there are some basic requirements that you should look for when shopping for a light to use as part of your daily routine.
Look for the following features when comparing sunlight lamps:
Up to 10,000 lux. Lux is a unit that’s used to measure illumination, or the total intensity of light that’s produced by an entire lamp. Standard bright light therapy requires a lamp with an intensity of 10,000 lux of light.
Some lamps feature different light settings, allowing you to adjust the brightness level to match your needs and light sensitivity.
Full-spectrum visible light. The term “full-spectrum” is used to refer to light that covers the full range of the electromagnetic spectrum beneficial to human and plant life. Clinical parameters for bright light therapy typically involve a full-spectrum light source.
A built-in timer. Although not essential, a built-in timer can make using a sunlight lamp much easier, as most bright light therapy protocols will require you to expose yourself to light for a specific amount of time.
Sunlight lamps come in a large range of sizes and designs, from compact desk lamps to larger floor lamp models. The best choice of lamp ultimately depends on your needs, tastes and your available space, with models more suitable for certain living environments than others.
Many lamps include additional features, such as the ability to act as a wake-up light, or dimmer settings allowing the lamp to double as an evening mood light. Pricing for sun lamps can range from less than $50 for basic models to several hundred dollars for advanced devices.
If you have seasonal affective disorder or another form of depression, using a light therapy lamp may help to reduce the severity of your symptoms and help you recover. However, lamp therapy isn’t the only option for treating and overcoming depression.
Other forms of effective treatment for depression include antidepressant medications, therapy and changes that you can make to your habits and lifestyle. We’ve discussed these treatment options below.
Antidepressants are medications that increase levels of certain neurotransmitters in your brain and body. They’re used to treat depression, anxiety disorders and other mental health issues, including seasonal affective disorder.
Common types of antidepressants include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).
Antidepressants are effective for many people with depression and seasonal affective disorder, but they can take several weeks to start working properly.Some antidepressants may cause side effects, although these are often mild and transient.
Your mental health provider may recommend using an antidepressant on its own or alongside light therapy, psychotherapy or other types of treatment. Make sure to follow their instructions and use your medication as prescribed.
We offer a range of depression and anxiety medications online, following an evaluation with a licensed healthcare provider who will determine if a prescription is appropriate.
Psychotherapy is a common treatment method for depression and other mental health issues, including seasonal affective disorder.
Also referred to as “talk therapy,” psychotherapy involves working with a mental health provider to improve your thoughts, feelings and behavior. One common method of therapy that’s used to treat seasonal affective disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.
As part of CBT, you may need to take part in several group or individual therapy sessions over the course of several weeks or months. Your mental health provider may suggest combining CBT with light therapy, medication or changes to your habits and lifestyle.
Although healthy habits alone aren’t always enough to treat depression, making certain changes to your daily life can often reduce the severity of your symptoms and make treating depression a more effective process. Try to:
Exercise on a regular basis, even if it’s just for 30 minutes a day. Exercise can help to reduce the severity of depression by improving nerve cell function and increasing your production of endorphins, or “feel-good” chemicals.
Avoid isolating yourself from other people. It’s easy to isolate yourself when you’re feeling down. Try to spend time with your friends and family, and don’t feel afraid to ask them for support if you feel like you need it.
Focus on making steady progress. Major depression, seasonal affective disorder and other mental health issues rarely improve overnight. Set achievable goals and focus on making steady, consistent progress instead of aiming for an immediate recovery.
Avoid making major decisions until you feel better. Many mood disorders, including depression and seasonal affective disorder, can affect your ability to make decisions. Try to postpone making any big decisions or life changes until you feel emotionally ready.
Practice self-care. Sometimes, the most effective way to deal with depression is to take great care of yourself. Use our list of self-care tips for women to relieve negative feelings and stay focused on making real, meaningful progress in your life.
Need more help dealing with depression? Our free online mental health resources share proven techniques that you can apply to build resilience, care for yourself and learn how to successfully deal with depression and other common mental health concerns.
Although the quality of research is mixed, there’s real evidence that sunlight lamps offer benefits for certain types of depression, such as seasonal affective disorder.
If you’ve been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, using a sunlight lamp as part of your daily routine may help to make your symptoms less severe. It may also help in recovery, either on its own or in combination with treatments such as medication and psychotherapy.
We offer a range of mental health services online, including online therapy and support groups for common mental health issues such as depression.
You can also learn more about evidence-based options for treating your symptoms in our guide to depression medications.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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