At 2am on the last Sunday in October, the clocks go back – which means you’ll probably get up an hour earlier than you need to and by afternoon you’ll be wondering how it got dark so quickly. With fewer daylight hours during winter months, your body naturally changes its rhythm, which means less energy, more time spent sleeping, and craving comfort foods such as shepherd’s pie and pasta.
For some people, however, the reduction in sunlight causes something more serious – seasonal affective disorder (SAD), with more intense symptoms of lethargy, feeling low or depressed with little or no desire to be active or socialise, a kind of depression. The good news is, however, that whether you’re looking to boost your winter energy levels or to overcome the more serious SAD, light therapy can help.
Light therapy works on a simple principle. During winter you’re exposed to less sunlight, partly because there are fewer daylight hours, the sun is lower in the sky, and there’s more cloud cover, but also because you simply spend less time outdoors. This not only affects your vitamin D levels (the sunshine vitamin), it also means your eyes don't absorb as much sunlight. That might seem like a good thing – too much sun is damaging for your eyes after all.
But according to research from Harvard Health Publications, bright light reaching cells in your retina send signals to your brain, controlling your circadian rhythms. An upset circadian rhythm affects your hormones and other chemicals that play important roles in maintaining energy levels, sleep and wakefulness, as well as your emotional state. While scientists can’t say for sure what triggers SAD, research has shown that light therapy helps relieve symptoms.
SAD treatments that work
The idea is that by exposing your eyes to artificial light, you trick your body into behaving as though it’s not really winter, resulting in improved energy levels and mood. Unfortunately, light therapy isn’t as simple as sitting by a table lamp or the bulb swinging from your ceiling, as it requires a specific intensity of light to work. There are, however, a number of products designed especially for this purpose: light boxes, light glasses and light clocks.
This is a largish, flat unit that maximises surface area so that you get more light exposure. There are a huge variety of styles, so think about how you’ll use it before you buy.
If you’re often on the go, a portable light box might be best for you, such as the 10,000 lux Beurer TL30UK Ultra Portable SAD Lamp which comes with a carry bag. If you spend a lot of time at a desk, a desktop design such as the LitePod SAD Light Box would be best as it’s tall and thin so will take up minimum space while giving you maximum light. If looks are important to you, opt for a designer model such as the Aurora SAD Lamp.
Whatever you choose, check that your model emits 10,000 lux. Lux is the unit of measurement of light – the higher the number, the brighter the source. Research has shown that for light treatment to be effective 10,000 lux for 20 to 30 minutes at a range of around 60cm (i.e. how far you are from the unit) is ideal. However if you’re sensitive to bright light, you might prefer to spend more time with the light box set at a lower level, so it’s important to look for a model that has at least two settings. Or look for models with an opaque diffuser, so that the light is softer while still emitting enough to give you the benefits.
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Some manufacturers offer full spectrum light with ultraviolet (UV), others offer full spectrum but filter out the UV light. There are health risks associated with UV light, so you would have to weigh up those risks against the benefits. UV light is closer to real sunlight, but the downside is that because it’s closer to sunlight you also expose yourself to the damage sunlight can cause to eyes and skin.
SAD light glasses
Pop a bit of sunshine into your day with a pair of SAD light therapy glasses. These sit above your eyes, so can be worn with glasses or contact lenses, and emit light. You can wear them as you eat breakfast, or on the bus or train (just be prepared for comments and questions about where you got them and whether they work!) – the manufacturers recommend they’re used once a day, in the mornings.
They work via light penetrating the lower part of the retina, where photoreceptors signal information to the brain, helping to restore normal levels of melatonin (the hormone that makes you feel sleepy) as well as cortisol and dopamine (making you feel more energetic).
There isn’t a huge range of choice when it comes to light therapy glasses but two brands stand out – Luminette glasses (approx. £200), where the light output can be set to 500, 1,000 or 1,500 lux, and is a blue-enriched white light; and ReTimer Light Therapy Glasses, which has 500 lux and soft light setting, with a green light. Both have been tested and found to be safe for use as stated. They’re both rechargeable via USB making them ideal if you travel.
Light therapy clock
If mornings are your biggest struggle, a light-based clock could be the stuff of your dreams, literally. These work by gradually increasing the light emitted from the unit, working up to full blast (whatever setting you put as the highest) at the time you’ve set the alarm to wake you up. The beauty of this is that without realising it, you begin to stir and gradually wake up as the light increases, so that when the alarm does go off, you’re not thrown into a state of shock.
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While a light therapy clock isn’t a treatment for SAD, it may make getting up in the morning less painful for people who have been diagnosed with the disorder. And for the rest of us, these clocks provide a wonderful way to wake up without a bad case of the winter morning grumps.
There are various options, each offering slightly different variations on the same theme – all allow you to adjust the light from soft to stronger for your wake-up alarm, some also have a sunset setting so that light gradually reduces as you get ready for sleep, and they offer various colours (such as warm white, green and red), as well as alarm sounds such as bird song or ocean waves to help create a natural feeling of wakefulness. Try the Lumie Bodyclock or the Philips Wake-Up Light.
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