Does LED Light Therapy Help with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)?

You may have noticed that every time fall and winter roll around and the days become shorter, your energy levels go down. As a result of these changes, it becomes hard to pay attention, you feel like sleeping all the time, and you experience signs of depression. You have a gut feeling that it might be more than the winter blues. Perhaps you’ve even read that an LED light for SAD might solve the problem. But what is SAD? And does LED light therapy help with SAD?

If those lousy feelings linger during winter, causing you to quickly hit the snooze button each morning or to eat a lot of comfort food, you are not alone.

Psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal and scientist Alfred Lewy coined a name for that debilitating “mood” almost 40 years ago: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What is SAD?

Not to be confused with Social Anxiety Disorder, SAD is a type of recurrent major depression syndrome that is prevalent in the fall and winter seasons. Nowadays, SAD symptoms can be experienced in spring and summer, too.

Moreover, SAD is so common that it’s insurable in the U.S. People experience a drop in energy levels once the cold and darkness that characterize both seasons begin.

But unlike the winter blues’ symptoms, SAD symptoms become more severe to the extent people are diagnosed with a major depression disorder.

How Many People Suffer from SAD?

The American Psychiatric Association reported that as many as 6% of U.S. citizens could have SAD. One in three people in the U.K. experience a drop in energy, mood, and activity levels. But for most people, the symptoms go beyond the blues and develop into mild or full-blown SAD.

While many people experience mild SAD symptoms, as many as 6% need hospitalization to improve.

How do you know you have SAD?

The U.S. National Institute for Mental Health has over the decades reported several SAD symptoms to look out for. Let’s examine them.

Common Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

  • A recurring depressed mood characterized by increased feelings of insignificance that follow a seasonal pattern 
  • Unexplained heaviness, aches, and pains in the arms and legs
  • Lingering or extreme cravings for sugary food or carbohydrates
  • Bouts of social withdrawal and isolation, a person no longer enjoys the activities they normally enjoy—they prefer to relax on the sofa most of the time
  • Chronic sleepiness that gets in the way of leading a normal life
  • Noticeable changes in appetite and body weight
  • Low energy levels that enhance feelings of sadness and even thoughts of suicide
  • Having difficulty concentrating

While these symptoms are similar to winter blues, they are typically more pronounced in those with SAD. For instance, when they occur for at least two years in a row, one is diagnosed with SAD.

Symptoms of Spring and Summer SAD

Some SAD symptoms are specific to summer and spring seasons. This type of SAD is referred to as summer depression and its symptoms include:

  • Insomnia
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Increased anxiety, agitation, and occasionally violent behavior

On the contrary, the type of SAD that occurs during fall and winter is known as winter depression.

Symptoms of Fall and Winter SAD

  • Oversleeping
  • Increased cravings for sugary foods and carbohydrates
  • Rapid weight gain
  • Lasting tiredness, the arms and legs feel heavy
  • Social withdrawal
  • A huge drop in energy levels and physical activity

Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder

There are several risk factors associated with SAD.

1. Disruption to the Biological Clock during Darker Seasons

Autumn and winter are characterized by shorter days and longer nights. This reduced exposure to the sun is linked to SAD. During these seasons, the part of the human brain known as the hypothalamus, which regulates the circadian rhythm (the sleep/wake cycle), can’t keep up with the changes in daylight levels.

This disruption is believed to cause the following hormonal and behavioral changes:

  • Abnormal melatonin production: The brain normally detects sunlight levels to keep your internal clock working well and to control vital tasks such as waking you up or making you feel sleepy. Subsequently, SAD causes the brain to produce more melatonin (the hormone that controls the sleep–wake cycle), leading to excessive sleep.
  • Irregular serotonin production: Serotonin is a hormone that helps regulate mood, appetite, and sleep. Reduced sunlight is linked to lower-than-normal serotonin production. This results in increased appetite, sleepiness, and feelings of anxiety or lingering sadness.

2. Living On the Extreme North or South of the Equator

If you live in an area that’s past 30 degrees south latitude or north latitude, you may be at risk for SAD because of the reduced sunlight in those areas. In fact, one study found that 14% of the people in Norway suffer from SAD, compared to only 4.7% New Yorkers.

3. Other Mental Health Concerns

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) has linked bipolar disorder, major depression disorder, eating disorders, and alcoholism to SAD. Up to 34% of people with alcoholism and 54% of people with severe depressive disorder are at risk for SAD.

4. SAD Can Be Genetic

Multiple studies suggest there is a genetic predisposition to SAD. Some genetic variations of SAD have been observed in many people. Furthermore, some people also report that a close family member suffers from a psychiatric condition. However, more research needs to be done to ascertain exactly what triggers SAD.

5. Age Matters

The people mostly diagnosed with winter SAD are aged between 18 and 30 years. As people get older, they are less likely to be diagnosed with the condition.

6. Your Gender

Women are 40% more likely to suffer from SAD than men. But here’s the thing, women tend to experience mild symptoms while men tend to experience severe symptoms.

7. Some Allergies

People who experience summer SAD are usually allergic to the heat and high humidity that are typical in spring and summer. Thankfully, like other mental health disorders, Seasonal Affective Disorder is treatable. Take SAD symptoms seriously. Most importantly, see a doctor when symptoms exceed the usual winter blues.

How Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Diagnosed?

Mental health professionals use a set of screening tools to make a SAD diagnosis. In particular, there are two major steps in diagnosing the disorder.

One is to identify a seasonal problem. The second is to capture and assess the severity of the seasonal problem so doctors can establish whether the patient has SAD or normal winter blues.

In the first step, a patient is given a self-administered questionnaire known as the Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire (SPAQ) to fill out based on their past experiences. To curb the problem of patients faking their symptoms, doctors conduct a clinical interview.

The interview follows gold-standard DSM-5 criteria. This ensures the health professional not only identifies a seasonal pattern in the symptoms but also assesses their seriousness so they can recommend SAD treatment.

The interview can include a psychological evaluation to ensure the person doesn’t have a psychiatric disorder. If need be, the mental health professional may ask the person to take a lab test, usually a blood count and a thyroid examination, to be completely sure.

How is Seasonal Affective Disorder Treated?

How is Seasonal Affective Disorder Treated
If you’re not feeling your best, a SAD lamp will help you refuel and get back to feeling normal.

Common treatments for SAD are categorized into two:

  • Light therapy treatment for winter-type SAD
  • Medication

Here’s what happens in each case.

1. LED Light Therapy for SAD

A few years ago, researchers figured out that the most common type of SAD, winter-pattern SAD, occurs when there’s a shortage of sunlight. This discovery led to the invention of Light therapy for SAD treatment, which can be done at home with a TaoTronics LED desk lamp for SAD. But does LED light therapy help with SAD at all?

does LED light therapy help with SAD?

In the brain, there is a protein that transports serotonin to the presynaptic neuron from the synaptic cleft. It is known as SERT and it plays a major role in serotonin regulation, affecting mood and depression.

Decreased exposure to sunlight and natural light causes levels of SERT to increase. Higher SERT levels prevent proper serotonin functioning. With less serotonin activity, a person becomes susceptible to mood swings, hypersomnia, appetite fluctuations, and depression.

Light therapy, or phototherapy, involves placing a 10,000-lux LED light box about 12 inches in front of you. You must place it in such a way that the light gets into your eyes without you having to stare directly at the lamp’s LED bulbs.

We recommend that you use a TaoTronics LED desk lamp for SAD and make this a 20 to 40-minute ritual every morning for the best results.

Will Using the Best LED Light for SAD Work for You?

A 2017 study and a 2018 Elated-2 Pilot Trial showed that LED lights for SAD mimic natural light and can safely treat SAD. In particular these lights can ease jet lag, non-seasonal depression, sleeping disorders, and dementia.

But LED light boxes are not made equal. So in answering does LED light therapy help with SAD, you also need to know how you choose the best LED light for SAD?

See a Qualified, Licensed Doctor or a Mental Health Professional First

There may be evidence that LED lights for SAD help. But how much light you need is up to your doctor to recommend.

Your doctor can also confirm if you have a skin or eye condition that makes you sensitive to outdoor-like light. Without professional advice and guidance, you may expose yourself to too much light and develop other conditions, including severe manic behavior.

How to Choose the Best Light for SAD: Features to Look for

Inject some gentle light therapy into your home.
Inject some gentle light therapy into your home.

The best light for SAD isn’t hard to find, if you know what to look for.

A light box like the TaoTronics LED desk lamp for SAD (TT-CL016 or TT-CL011), offers the kind of benefits you need. These are the features to look for when buying an LED light for SAD:

  • 10,000-lux capacity. Such lights produce powerful, white light that mimics sunlight’s optimal color temperature.
  • Lumens: how bright a lamp is will determine how close you need to place it in front of your face to get relief for SAD. Look for a lamp with brightness controls as you’ll have an easy time regulating the light. When we look at a TaoTronics LED desk lamp for SAD, for example, the TaoTronics TT-CL011 LED light energy lamp offers up to three brightness settings.
  • The light should produce powerful, bright light but filter out harmful UV rays to protect your skin and eyes.
  • It should be specifically designed to treat SAD and other related mental health disorders.
  • The light should be compact and portable. It should be easy to carry, set up, and take up minimal space in a bag or a desk.
  • It should be durable. For instance, the TaoTronics LED desk lamp for SAD lasts up to 8X longer than a fluorescent lamp.

2. Seasonal Affective Disorder Medication

The only FDA-approved drug for SAD treatment is the antidepressant, Bupropion XL. Aplenzin and Wellbutrin XL are extended-release versions of Bupropion XL. In other words, these medicines can be used to prevent bouts of depression in people with SAD.

How to Reduce the Risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you’re asking does LED light therapy help with SAD, then there are also some other options you should be aware of. Namely, mental health professionals say that you can take some steps to reduce the symptoms of SAD. Here’s what you can do:

  • Get psychosocial therapy, also known as talking therapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It can empower you to change your behavioral response to SAD symptoms and learn to manage stress levels.
  • Expose yourself to natural sunlight as much as you can, whenever you can.
  • Do not buy sugary and starchy food. Stock up on healthy fruits, vegetables, and fiber-rich food. That way, you also steer clear of unhealthy weight gain. 
  • Exercise regularly. The minimum recommended workouts for adults are three, 30-minute sessions per week.
  • Make plans for social meetups, adventure, art, music, or yoga/meditation during fall and winter.
  • Take vitamin D supplements and avoid untested vitamin D lamps which can cause skin and eye cancers.

Get an LED Light for SAD

So, does LED light therapy help with SAD?

Recent studies have shown that high-quality LED lighting can help treat Seasonal Affective Disorder. The best LED light box for SAD treatment should be safe and have the right color temperature to make you feel better in just a few days.

In short, do not go for the cheapest SAD lamp. Choose one such as the TaoTronics LED desk lamp for SAD that’s not only convenient, portable, affordable, and well-made, but also offers UV protection.

Mike Cheong
Follow Me

Mike Cheong

Mike Cheong is the senior lighting expert for TaoTronics. He started focusing his attention on lighting upon realizing how daily life can be improved with the right spotlight. When not busy testing the latest lamp releases, he can be found reading bedtime stories to his three kids.

One Reply to “Does LED Light Therapy Help with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)?”

  1. I got my Therapy lamp (TT-CL011) for Christmas.

    I’ve started using it and it seems to bother my eyes a bit. not sure if I’m using it correctly. At first I placed it directly in front of me, about 2 feet away. I pressed the lamp button once to make it brighter than when it first came on and tried 20 minutes.
    Since after a couple of days I noticed it seemed to hurt my eyes, I’ve now tried placing it about 2 feet away but at the side and I try never looking into it.

    Not sure if I am getting any benefit using it.
    Can you tell me:
    1. how close should it be to me? Am I having it either too close or too far?
    2. should it be in front of me rather than to the side?
    3. should I press the lamp button more than once? What intensity am I getting by pressing once? it correct that i should never stare directly into it (which is a bit hard when it is in front of you?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.