WTF is...a SAD lamp?

Because sitting in front of a super bright light every morning might just be the best thing you can do for your mental wellbeing this winter.

As if we don’t already dread the dropping temperatures enough, the onset of winter and the looming weekend wherein we adjust our clocks for daylight savings (back an hour on November 2, just FYI), means that we’ll often be waking up and getting home from work in the dark. You know that winter gloom? Okay, so maybe it comes from the fact that you have to wear 10 layers and a parka that closely resembles a sleeping bag anytime you want to go outside. But sometimes it’s SAD, as in Seasonal Depression Disorder. Yes, it's real and as it turns out, light is the somewhat simple (and obvious) way of dealing with it.

“SAD is a form of depression that typically recurs every year around the same time and is related to changes of season,” explained Dr. Samantha Boardman, a Manhattan-based psychiatrist and founder of mental wellness website Positive Prescriptions, when we sent her a laundry list of queries around our depressed wintertime state (or at least the fear of it). “Symptoms include feelings of sadness, irritability, lack of interest in activities you that used to be enjoyable, weight or appetite changes and sleep changes among others. In most cases, symptoms begin in the fall, last through the winter and lift during the spring and summer. The symptoms usually appear during colder months when there is less exposure to natural sunlight.”

Okay, fine. But therein lies our problem. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones (Los Angelenos, we kind of love to hate you) who resides in the land of perpetual summer, that lack of sunlight is our exact problem. Which is where a SAD lamp comes in. “For some, SAD can effectively treated with light therapy. It entails sitting in front of a light box filled with fluorescent bulbs for a specified period of time each day,” said Dr. Boardman. “Treatment sessions vary but are usually 30 minutes once a day. Time of day is important—early morning sessions work best for most people.” So every morning as we eat our smoothie bowl (or dry toast and coffee), we now solemnly swear to sit in front of our blazingly bright light box. But be warned: like the sun, do not stare straight at it—we know because we’ve tried it. Unlike the sun, a SAD lamp is just a super bright lamp, not a UV light. So while it mimics the light effects of the sun, you still need to be popping those vitamin Ds daily to make up for the fact that you might not get sustained sun attention until April.

“The success of treating SAD with light therapy is well documented though the precise therapeutic mechanism is unclear,” Dr. Boardman told us. “It is thought to help regulate the body’s internal clock, which controls hormones (like melatonin), sleep and body temperature. Essentially it helps people feel sleepy earlier and wake up earlier.” In other words, it helps you to rise and actually shine, and then stay shining (or something like it) throughout the day.
“Improvement in symptoms often occurs within a week and consistent daily treatment should be maintained,” Dr. Boardman counsels. “Symptoms usually recur if treatment is interrupted for too long. This should be done under the care of a physician.” If you’re like us and your annual winter dread goes far beyond concern for the cold and the potential necessity of wearing down-filled items, it might be worth calling your doctor to chat about a, um, lamp.

How do you deal with winter gloom?
Have you ever tried a SAD lamp?
Tell us on Twitter, @thecoveteur, #CovWTF

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