How My SAD Lamp Saves My Life Every Winter

Photo: Alexandra Gavillet
Sunset came at 5.02pm in London today, but in my house the daylight stuck around for several more hours. This is because I have sunshine on tap, in the form of a SAD lamp that keeps my head above water from November to February. My cat shifts in his seat to face the lamp when I turn it on – he misses the sunlight too.
When the days grow short in winter, and the little light that we do get is filtered through grey cloud, it’s not unusual to feel a little less energetic. But for some people, the “winter blues” are more serious than that. The low mood and low energy of SAD – the crudely apt acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder – affects up to 29% of adults, according to a survey by YouGov and the Weather Channel. For 6%, it’s so severe that they can’t work or function normally.
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For me, SAD means I sleep a lot, and at the depth of it my ability to focus starts to drift and everything becomes a lot more effort. On a good year, I experience what you might call “being a homebody”: I stay in, sleep, cook hearty foods, and use a lot of blankets. On a bad year, I don’t remember very much afterwards but it’s a bit like a fog takes over my brain. My mind feels sluggish and it takes momentous effort to snap to – you might have experienced something similar if you’ve ever tried to work in the middle of the night, or while severely jetlagged.
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SAD lamps work by replacing some of the sun that’s missing in winter, by sending daylight-spectrum light to the brain’s neurotransmitters. The idea is that this balances out the production of melatonin and serotonin that’s become messed up by the low light. In turn, this corrects the cause of SAD and helps the body get back on track.
I first tried a SAD lamp as a teenager, after borrowing one from a family friend who said it might help. I hated winter as a kid – early on it was mostly due to the cold but by the time I was 17, the whole season would be a dark blur of sleepiness and what teachers call “bad attitude”. In one way I wasn’t experiencing anything unnatural: the body clock is designed for us to wake at sunrise and slow down at sunset. Scientists have even speculated that SAD could be nature’s way of getting us to slow down to conserve energy in winter.
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But for modern humans it’s not really an option to hibernate through winter like bears. I sat in front of the blazing light for half an hour every day during that first winter, and after two weeks I was amazed to find that the blues had started to lift. I eventually bought my own SAD lamp and I’ve used it every winter for over a decade. There’s a lot of options on the market (I have the Lumie Brightspark and Arabica), but what you want is a lamp that delivers the industry standard of 10,000 lux.
The recommendation is to sit in front of the sun lamp for 45-90 minutes, which I can confirm is a very long time to sit in front of a blinding bright light. The evidence on how well SAD lamps work is mixed, in part because studies are hampered by the fact that people don’t stick with it. I’ve found that the best way to ensure I actually keep using my lamp is to put it a little further away so it’s less invasive, but then keep it on for longer – say three hours while I work. As long as the light still hits my face, I find that this works just as well, although prolonged use does give me a slight tan.
The NHS treats SAD the same way it treats depression: by recommending exercise, healthy food and avoiding stress, as well as cognitive behavioural therapy and/or antidepressants. The NHS also recommends getting out and about during daylight hours and working by a window, and with the caveat that it won’t be right for everyone, light therapy. Some GPs will have a lamp loan programme, but mostly it’s up to the individual. SAD lamps aren’t cheap – most of them are around £100. For me, this is worth it.
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Some years, I feel like I barely need the sun lamp, whereas other years, turning it on every day feels like a breath of fresh air. In any case, on 1st November every year I dig it out from under the bed and settle in for a four-month stretch, as getting ahead of the fog is easier than trying to lift it once it’s settled. The lamp is not a complete cure, I should add – I still sleep more in winter. But while the lamp doesn’t get rid of all the physical symptoms of SAD, I find it can be quite effective in sorting out the mental symptoms.
The very best thing I’ve ever done for my SAD is to travel somewhere sunny in winter. I once spent the month of December in India and didn’t experience a single symptom. I came back to London in early January and was amazed to find that even though it was the usual gloom outside, I felt clear as a bell. It was only from that perspective that I realised that almost everyone gets a little insular in winter, and that is okay. Nothing in nature is at peak performance for 12 months of the year, so why should humans expect to be any different? Ever since then I’ve allowed myself to slow down a little in the winter, and that’s helped. I’d also recommend taking vitamin D – the NHS says everyone should in winter – and also, get a flu shot! Everything will be so much easier if you don’t get sick.
Today we had three minutes and 34 seconds more light than we did yesterday. I know this because I’m slightly obsessed with a website called TimeAndDate.com – did you know the pace of light gain accelerates as we move towards spring? As we’re now one month and 17 days past the winter solstice on 22nd December, we’ve already gained one hour and 9 minutes of daylight, and in another month we will have gained almost another hour on top of that. I remind myself of that when the sun sets far too early in the evening: tomorrow will be better. It’s getting better every day.
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