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Can SAD lights make a gloomy Canadian happy?

A few weeks ago, I was Googling something along the lines of “What to do this winter in Canada.”

Among a slew of articles about events, New Years’ celebrations, skiing spots and ice fishing, was a story about the lack of sunlight, social interaction and the overall gloominess Canadian Winters bring about. The overarching theme of the story was SAD, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder.

As expected, I was quickly bombarded with ads about lamps that claim to help with SAD. I decided to order one and have been using it for a few weeks now.

Note: This isn’t a review about a specific said lamp brand. It’s about how these lamps work and their overall effectiveness. However, if you’re curious, I used this lamp with 10,000 Lux of brightness from Verilux.

What exactly is Seasonal Effective Disorder?

Have you ever felt extra moody, irritated, inattentive, and that an overall lack of energy and motivation has taken over your body and soul around the time of the year when leaves turn orange? Yes? Me too.

I’m not saying that these symptoms are 100 percent caused by SAD since they often overlap with several other conditions. But, if you’re a healthy individual, who eats right and squeezes in enough exercise, and see these symptoms slowly fade away as you transition from wearing thick jackets and Timberlands, to shorts and flip-flops around the spring, then you too might just be feeling SAD.

Light therapy is believed to influence your brain to produce and release chemicals associated with mood and sleep.”

The Canadian Psychological Association says that SAD is believed to be influenced by exposure to sunlight. The shorter the days become, the more our body struggles with maintaining its circadian rhythm (our body’s biological clock). It’s also believed that less exposure to sunlight disturbs our neurotransmitters and slows down the production and release of ‘feel-happy’ hormones and chemicals like Serotonin and Dopamine.

This is where SAD lamps come in.

What is Light Therapy, and how to go about it?

Light therapy is the process of using a lightbox, or lamp in my case, to mimic natural outdoor light. Light therapy is believed to influence your brain to produce and release chemicals associated with mood and sleep, which in turn help alleviate some symptoms of SAD.

It is recommended that you use a lamp that can output 10,000 lux of brightness and place it about half an arm or an arm’s distance away from your face, above the eye level. You’re not supposed to look directly into the lamp. However, the light should be placed near you so that light from it can enter your eyes indirectly.

Also recommended is that you start your therapy early in the morning, preferably as soon as you wake up, and sit through it for 20-30 minutes. I usually ‘attend’ my light therapy when I start work at around 9am while sipping coffee. You are also supposed to use the lamp daily, preferably at the same time every day, if you wish to alleviate some of the SAD symptoms.

My experience

I started my light therapy in early December and jumped in the deep end right away. The first few days felt counterproductive. My eyes would usually feel a little uncomfortable towards the end of the day. They were kind of itchy, but not exactly itchy and burning, but not exactly burning. It’s hard to explain, but my eyes felt tired.

It also made me feel sleepy during the day. I’m not sure if that results from my circadian rhythm resetting? But it felt weird.

Fast forward a few days, and I realized my dumbass was using the light incorrectly. I would usually keep the light on for hours on end and had it placed at an angle where the light would shine from under me, directed towards my chin area. Though I did use it at the same time every day, so at least I got something right.

“I do feel that my attention span is a little better than it was a few weeks ago.”

I’ve been using the lamp ‘correctly’ for about three weeks, and I have experienced ‘some’ positive effects. For example, my sleep schedule has changed from an absolute disaster to something that isn’t necessarily perfect but is a bit more manageable. I’ve found myself feeling sleepy at night around 11:30-12-ish, which, just a few weeks ago, was the time I’d be endlessly scrolling on my phone.

Since I go to bed a little earlier now, I’ve been able to wake up sooner as well and feel like I get a good night’s sleep every night.

Mood-wise, I never really had a problem, even before I started using the light, so it’s hard to say if there has been progress in that area. That being said, I do feel that my attention span is a little better than it was a few weeks ago, and I feel overall more aware, alert and attentive.

Day-time lack of energy was also never really an issue, but post using the lamp, I don’t feel sleepy during the day, but that could also have to do with the fact that my sleep schedule is better now than it used to be a few weeks ago.

Of course, this progress could be a placebo effect and me just thinking the light is doing what it’s supposed to do. SAD lamps are recommended to be used throughout the winter season, until mid-spring to early summer. I plan to use the lamp until then and update this story with more concrete observations as I continue to use it.