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mental health / wellness

SAD Lamps: How Effective Are They?

by BetterSleep
Oct 29 2022 • 12 min read

A famous holiday song says, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” but for some people, wintertime is anything but wonderful. Shorter days and longer nights can bring on a form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD is a form of depression that occurs at the same time every year, usually starting in the fall and continuing into the winter months. While the exact cause of SAD is unknown, it is believed to be related to the change in seasons and the decrease in daylight.

As such, many people turn to artificial light and light therapy in the form of lamps to help combat SAD. Known as SAD lamps, these special lights are designed to mimic natural sunlight and can be used for a few minutes each day to help improve mood and symptoms.

In this post, we’ll take a closer look at SAD and how SAD lamps may be able to help.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Wintertime blues are a common phenomenon, but for some people, the symptoms are much more than just a case of the “sniffles.” When winter sets in, they may experience a significant decline in mood and energy levels, increased cravings for carbohydrates, weight gain, and social withdrawal.

For most people, these symptoms are mild and go away on their own as spring arrives. But for those with SAD, the symptoms can be so severe that they interfere with daily life.

The Science Behind SAD

Previous research suggested that depression is more common in people who live in northern and colder climates; however, more recent studies have found that SAD can affect people living anywhere in the world and that the relationship between climate and depression is not as clear as once thought.

For example, a study on depression risk in Spain showed that males living in the south were more likely to experience depression than those living in the north and that living in rainy areas also lowered the risk for them.

Nonetheless, SAD is a real and diagnosable disorder. Scientists believe that SAD may be caused by a change in the body’s production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood. Winter’s lack of sunlight or lower light intensity may also disrupt the body’s circadian rhythms or natural sleep-wake cycle.

SAD occurs more frequently in women than men and usually begins in young adulthood. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), SAD is a major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern.

Symptoms of SAD

The symptoms of SAD can vary from person to person but usually include a combination of the following:

Feeling Depressed Most of the Day, Almost Every Day

With SAD, the symptoms of depression are more severe than the winter blues. You may feel hopeless, worthless, and helpless. You may not know why you feel this way and may be unable to snap out of it. If you have a major depressive disorder, you may also experience racing thoughts, irritability, or restlessness.

Loss of Interest in Activities that were Once Enjoyed

People with SAD may lose interest in hobbies, social activities, and sex. You may feel too tired or depressed to do the things you used to enjoy.

Changes in Appetite or Weight

Many people with SAD overeat, crave carbohydrates, and gain weight. Others may have a decreased appetite and lose weight.

Sleep Problems

It’s common for people with SAD to either sleep too much or have difficulty sleeping. You may find it hard to get out of bed in the morning or feel exhausted during the day. Because of our natural circadian rhythm, sleep disorders are common in the winter.

Anxiety, Irritability, or Agitation

You may feel on edge, easily frustrated, or more impatient than usual. When you’re depressed, small things can feel overwhelming.

Loss of Energy or Motivation

It may be hard to do even simple tasks like showering, dressing, or cooking. You may feel like you can’t concentrate or that your movements are slowed.

Thoughts of Suicide

Depression can lead to suicidal thoughts. This is a serious symptom that should not be ignored. If you have thoughts of harming yourself, getting help immediately is important.

Physical problems

People with SAD may also experience physical symptoms such as headaches, joint pain, and gastrointestinal issues. People around you may notice strange changes in your appearance or how you behave. For example, you may start wearing darker clothes or stop taking care of your hygiene. You may also start moving or talking more slowly.

Most people with SAD don’t experience all of these symptoms, but the severity of symptoms can vary from mild to severe. If your symptoms interfere with work, school, or social life, it’s important to seek help.

Tips for Coping With SAD

There are several things you can do to help cope with SAD. Some people find that lifestyle changes, such as getting more exercise, eating a healthier diet, and spending time in outdoor light, can help. Others may benefit from light exposure through light therapy, which involves sitting in front of a special lamp that emits intense but safe light levels. Below, we’ll discuss light therapy, its benefits, and how you can use a light therapy box to combat SAD.

Light Therapy: SAD Lamps and Your Mental Health

A seasonal affective disorder doesn’t have to ruin your winter. Light therapy, or exposure to natural and artificial light, is a common and effective treatment for SAD. Bright light therapy is thought to work by resetting the body’s natural clock and improving serotonin levels.

When natural light is lacking, spending time in front of light therapy devices, like a SAD lamp or light box, that emit bright, artificial light can help. These devices typically emit about 20 times brighter light than a standard light bulb.

Most people with SAD start to feel better within days of light therapy, but it may take a few weeks for the full effects to kick in.

Light therapy is generally safe, but it’s important to talk to your doctor before starting treatment. People with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, bipolar disorder, and Retinitis pigmentosa, should not use light therapy without medical supervision.

Benefits of Using Light Therapy

As we’ve seen, light therapy can be an effective treatment for SAD. But what are the specific benefits of using light therapy?

Some benefits of light therapy include the following:

Improving Mood

Your mood can improve within days of starting light therapy. For some people, the effects are immediate.

Increasing Energy Levels

If you’re struggling with fatigue, light therapy can help. Energy levels are often associated with serotonin levels, and light therapy can help increase serotonin production.

Reducing Stress

Light therapy can help reduce stress and anxiety. It can also help improve your sleep quality, further reducing stress levels.

Improving Concentration

If you’re having trouble focusing, light therapy can help. It’s been shown to improve concentration and cognitive function in people with ADHD.

Improving Sleep

Light therapy can help people with sleep problems, such as insomnia and jet lag. It can also improve sleep quality in people with Shift Work Disorder.

Light therapy is a non-invasive, drug-free treatment option with few side effects. It’s relatively inexpensive and easy to use. You can find light therapy lamps and boxes at most drugstores or online.

What to Look for in a SAD Lamp

There are a few different types of light boxes available, but the most effective ones emit at least 10,000 lux light. The light should be bright but not blinding and diffused (not shining directly into your eyes).

Here are other things to consider when choosing a SAD lamp:

Size: A larger light box will emit more light but may be less convenient.

Portability: If you plan on traveling with your light box, make sure it’s small and lightweight enough to pack.

Adjustability: Some light boxes allow you to adjust the light intensity, which can be helpful if you’re sensitive to light.

Price: Light boxes can range from $30 to $200++.

How to use a SAD Lamp

Light therapy is most effective for 30 minutes to two hours per day. The best time to do it is in the morning, but you can do it at any time that works for you.

You can use a light box while doing other activities, such as reading, working on the computer, or watching TV.

It’s important to start with low light intensity and gradually increase it over time. Adjustable lightboxes can be helpful if you experience any discomfort, such as headaches or eye strain.

Here’s a sample schedule for using a light box during the day:

7:00 a.m. – 8:00 a.m.: 30 minutes

8:00 a.m. – 9:00 a.m.: 60 minutes

9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.: 30 minutes

3:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.: 30 minutes

Light therapy can also be done in the evening if you have trouble sleeping. Just be sure to avoid using the light therapy box within two hours of bedtime.

Most people start to feel better after a few days of light therapy. Talk to your doctor if you don’t notice any improvement after two weeks.

Common Side Effects of Light Therapy

Light therapy lamps have a few common side effects, such as:

Eye strain

Exposure to bright light can cause eye strain. If you experience this, consider moving the lightbox away or wearing sunglasses.


Bright light can also cause headaches. If you get a headache from light therapy, you may switch to lower light intensity or decrease the time you spend using the lightbox.


Feeling nauseous is another common side effect of light therapy. If you experience nausea, try using a lower light intensity or stop light therapy altogether.


Dizziness is a common side effect of light therapy, especially if you stand up too quickly after sitting in front of the lightbox. If you experience dizziness, try using a lower light intensity or sitting down gradually after light therapy.


For some people, light therapy can cause anxiety. This is more likely to happen if you have a history of anxiety or are using high-light intensity. Don’t use a light box if you’re feeling anxious or agitated.

Skin Irritation

If you have sensitive skin, light therapy can irritate you. You’ll notice this as a red, itchy rash. If you experience skin irritation, try using a lower intensity of light or wearing sunglasses.

Light therapy has a few potential risks, but it’s generally safe and effective. If you experience side effects, such as eye strain, headaches, or nausea, try using a lower intensity of light or wearing sunglasses. Also, most of these side effects are mild and go away independently. If they don’t, talk to your doctor.

Treating SAD: More Ways

If light therapy alone doesn’t work for you, there are a few other options to combat SAD. These options can be combined with light therapy for the best results.


Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are an antidepressant used to treat SAD. SSRIs help regulate serotonin levels in the brain, which can impact mood. Before taking any medication, you must discuss the potential risks and benefits with your doctor.


Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, can be an effective treatment for SAD. In psychotherapy, you talk to a therapist about your symptoms, thoughts, and feelings. This can help you identify negative thought patterns and develop coping mechanisms.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a nutrient that’s important for bone health. It’s also linked to mood. Some research suggests that people with SAD may have a vitamin D deficiency. You can get vitamin D through sunlight, food, and supplements. You must talk to your doctor about the right dose to take vitamin D supplements. Too much vitamin D can be harmful.


Exercise is a natural mood booster. It can also help improve sleep, which can be beneficial if you’re struggling with SAD. If you don’t exercise regularly, start slowly and gradually increasing your workouts’ frequency and intensity.


Mindfulness meditation can help you focus on the present and let go of negative thoughts. This type of meditation can be done anywhere, at any time. Many guided meditation apps and websites can help you get started. Below, we’ll detail how to get started with mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness Meditation with BetterSleep

Winter can be a tough time for people with SAD. The shorter days and nights can make it hard to get out of bed in the morning and lead to feelings of sadness, fatigue, and isolation. SAD lamps are effective in treating SAD, but they’re not the only solution. This section will explore how mindfulness meditation can help you combat SAD.

Mindfulness meditation is a great way to focus on the present and forget negative thoughts. You can do it anywhere, anytime, by focusing on your breath and being aware of yourself and your surroundings.

If you’re new to mindfulness meditation, BetterSleep offers a vast library of free, guided meditations. You can also choose from various sleep sounds to help you fall asleep if you’re experiencing insomnia.

To Get Started, Find a Comfortable Place to Sit or Lie Down.

The place can be anywhere that’s comfortable for you – a quiet room, outside in nature, or even in your bed. During winter, sitting near a window where you can get some natural light can be especially helpful.

Once You’re Settled in, Close Your Eyes and Focus on Your Breath.

Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, and exhale slowly through your mouth. As you breathe, focus on the sensation of your breath moving in and out of your body.

If your mind starts to wander, that’s okay. Just gently bring your attention back to your breath.

Continue Breathing and Focusing on Your Breath for 5-10 Minutes.

Once you’re finished, take a few deep breaths and open your eyes.

SAD Lamps: Final Thoughts

If you’re struggling with SAD, know that you’re not alone. Seasonal affective disorder is a real and treatable condition.

There are many effective treatments for SAD, including light therapy, medication, psychotherapy, and exercise. Talk to your doctor if you’re unsure which treatment is right for you. In the meantime, you can also try mindfulness meditation to help you cope with SAD.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is a SAD Lamp?

A SAD lamp is a type of light therapy used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD lamps emit light similar to natural sunlight, which can help improve mood and energy levels.

How do I use a SAD Lamp?

To use a SAD lamp, sit or stand near the lamp for 30 minutes to an hour each day. The amount of time you need to use the lamp will vary depending on the severity of your symptoms.

What Color Light is Best for a SAD Lamp?

Most SAD lamps emit white light, but some also emit blue light. Blue light is especially effective in treating SAD.

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

The effects of a SAD lamp can vary from person to person. Some people may notice a difference after a few days, while others may need to use the lamp for a few weeks before seeing any improvement.

Can a SAD Lamp Help With Other Conditions Besides SAD?

SAD lamps also treat other conditions, such as jet lag, sleep disorders, and depression.

Do SAD Lamps Have Any Side Effects?

SAD lamps’ most common side effects are eye strain, headaches, and nausea. These side effects are usually mild and go away after a few days of using the lamp. If you experience severe side effects, stop using the lamp and talk to your doctor.

Do SAD Lamps Emit Harmful UV Rays?

No, SAD lamps do not emit harmful UV rays. The light emitted by a SAD lamp is similar to natural sunlight, but it’s not as intense.

My SAD Lamp is Not Working. What Should I Do?

If your SAD lamp is not working, try using it for a longer period or moving it closer to you. You may also want to try a different type of SAD lamp. Talk to your doctor if your symptoms don’t improve after using the lamp.

Can I Use Other Light Sources Besides a SAD Lamp?

Yes. Any type of light can help improve your mood, although SAD lamps are the most effective. Other light sources include sunlight, fluorescent lights, and LED lights.

Can I Start Using a SAD Lamp During the Fall?

Yes. If you start using a SAD lamp in the fall, it can help prevent SAD from developing. Start using the lamp when the days get shorter and use it every day, even on sunny days.

Can I Use a SAD Lamp Any Time of the Year?

Yes. SAD lamps can be used any time of the year, even during the summer.

If I’m Using a SAD Lamp, Do I Still Need to Go Outside?

Even if you’re using a SAD lamp, getting outside for at least 30 minutes each day is important. Natural sunlight is the best source of light for treating SAD. Just be sure to use sunscreen and protective clothing to avoid sunburn.

Will a Desk Lamp Work as a SAD Lamp?

No, a desk lamp will not work as a SAD lamp. Desk lamps emit light that’s too low in intensity to be effective in treating SAD.

What Brands of SAD Lamps are Available?

Many SAD lamps are available, including Philips, Verilux, and Solas. It’s important to do your research to find a lamp that’s right for you.

Do I Need a Prescription for a SAD Lamp?

No, you don’t need a prescription for a SAD lamp. However, if you have insurance, it’s worth checking to see if your policy covers the cost of a SAD lamp.

What is the Best SAD Lamp?

There is no one “best” SAD lamp. The best lamp for you will depend on your individual needs and preferences.

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