I live in Western Canada. Although it’s a beautiful country, winters here can be long, cold and dark and for many of us this can lead to a form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Essentially, this is ‘seasonal’ disorder that occurs every year starting in the fall, when daylight decreases, extending into the winter until the daylight hours increase again in the spring. There are several ways to treat SAD but one of the more effective forms is using Light Therapy.
Light therapy treats SAD using bright light, mimicking daylight, through tools called light boxes, bright light therapy boxes or phototherapy boxes. Used in conjunction with other antidepressant treatments, such as medication or psychotherapy, it’s proven to be effective in helping SAD sufferers through the cold months. All light boxes are designed to do the same thing but you need to know what to look for to ensure that the one you choose suits your individual needs.
What is a light box and what is its purpose?
Essentially, it’s similar to a tanning booth minus the tan. The user sits with the light box shining on her for about 30+ minutes each morning, preferably with indirect light with your eyes open. What it does is elicit the ‘happy’ chemical changes we experience in natural sunlight, which helps to ease the negative symptoms of SAD. It also helps regulate the sleep-wake cycles, which have been known to effect mood.
Where can I find a Light Box?
Since they are available without a doctor’s prescription, they can be bought over-the-counter, on Internet retailers or hardware stores. Many doctors or psychologists may be able to recommend a particular one for you and, in that way, can often be covered by insurance.
What should I look for in a Light Box?
There are different boxes offering different features, sizes and degrees of light intensities. They are designed to be safe but aren’t yet approved or regulated by the FDA. For these reasons, research on Light Boxes is still limited so it could be challenging finding the safest and best suited one for your individual needs. Here are some of the main points to bear in mind when shopping for a good quality Light Box:
It should be made to treat SAD. There are some light boxes that emit UV light and are made for the purpose of treating skin problems. Such boxes will not effectively treat the symptoms of SAD and could also damage the eyes.
Check the brightness. The brighter the light, the less time you’d need to use it to feel the effects. Look for a box that will give you the intensity of light you’ll need when you’re at a comfortable distance away from it. For example, according to MayoClinic.com, you would need to use a box with 10,000 lux at 12 – 14 inches away from you for about 30 minutes per day. Another box with 2500 lux the same distance from you would need two or more hours to achieve the same effects. Be sure you understand what your needs are then choose the best suited brightness.
Check UV light. Light boxes made for SAD treatment filter out most UV light. Check for a box that emits the least amount of UV light. If you aren’t sure about it, ask the manufacturer for your own safety.
Ask about LEDs and Blue Light. LED’s (light-emitting diodes) produce narrower, more targeted wavelengths. They are also lighter and more efficient than the traditional fluorescent or incandescent lights. Although white light is traditionally used in light boxes, blue light has a shorter wavelength. As well, some research has shown blue light may also be more effective in treating SAD.
Choose the best style. There are stand up versions, pairs, rectangular shaped or even battery-powered devices with visors! As well they come with a variety of features such as on/off switches, adjustable brightness, timers, carrying cases, wall mounts and more. Be sure to shop around for the style that best suits your needs.
Cost. Light boxes can cost anywhere from $100 to $500. Insurance companies will not always cover the cost of such therapy so look into what forms they will cover (if any) and whether you’d need a doctor’s recommendation for coverage consideration.
The only other thing I would recommend is finding one that simulates the sunrise. Some light boxes actually turn on with a dim glow while you’re still sleeping then gradually get brighter until you wake up. This is supposed to help with sleep-wake patterns. But to effectively treat SAD, you need to be exposed to the bright light with your eyes open for 30 minutes or longer.
I, for one, can feel a huge difference in my mood when the sun is shining, even when the weather is still bitterly cold. If you aren’t able to get out in the natural sunlight during the colder months, and you feel some of the symptoms of SAD, using a light box may be the best alternative.