Light therapy found to benefit energy and wellbeing in the winter

It’s an extremely grey (and rainy) day here in London as I write this, which reminds me that autumn and winter are not too far away. Some look to the colder, darker seasons with some trepidation, because they can find general vitality and mood take a dive at this time. At its worst, this phenomenon can manifest is what is known as ‘seasonal affective disorder’ (SAD). However, some individuals are not affected badly enough to warrant this diagnosis, and are sometimes classified as having ‘subsyndromal SAD’ (S-SAD).

I was interested to read a Swedish study published recently in which individuals with SAD and S-SAD were treated with bright light therapy [1]. In this study, individuals were exposed to 10 days of treatment in a ‘light room’. I am not able to find in the study details regarding how much time individuals spent in the light room each day. Mood, fatigue and wellbeing was rated before the light therapy, immediately after, and then a month later.

Some of the group in this study was treated immediately their symptoms became apparent. For others, treatment was delayed by 3 weeks. The idea was for this second group to act as a control group, of sorts. However, a much better control might have been exposed to a light room in which the quality of the light is known not to have benefits in the treating SAD or S-SAD.

This design flaw aside, the study did turn up some interesting results. In individuals with either SAD or S-SAD, light therapy led to improvements in scores of fatigue, daytime sleepiness and health-related quality of life. What is more, the benefits were still apparent a month after the treatment stopped.

The researchers subdivided the group into three, according to symptoms:

  1. mildly depressed and not sleepy
  2. mildly depressed and sleepy
  3. depressed and sleepy

The researchers go on to suggest that individuals with SAD or S-SAD symptoms might be categorised according to their predominant symptoms as follows:

  1. ‘simple winter fatigue’
  2. ‘simple winter fatigue with sleepiness’
  3. ‘winter depression’

I don’t know whether these terms will stick. The important thing, though, is that all three groups benefitted from the light therapy. The study does supply support for the notion that many individuals may benefit from getting more light in the winter, even if they do not have symptoms that, strictly speaking, put them in the ‘SAD’ category.

Getting more light exposure during the day in the winter is one tactic that may help. However, there are days (like today, here in London) when this is not realistic. The cold can be another barrier, as can a busy, office-based work schedule.

In such cases, a light device may prove a good investment. The one I have at home (Apollo GoLite M2) is pictured below. My subjective experience is that it’s really helped me through the winter. Nothing ‘scientific’ about my experience, of course. But then again, this does not matter to me – I feel it helps.


1. Rastad C, et al. Improvement in Fatigue, Sleepiness, and Health-Related Quality of Life with Bright Light Treatment in Persons with Seasonal Affective Disorder and Subsyndromal SAD. Depression Research and Treatment. 2011:543906


7 Responses to Light therapy found to benefit energy and wellbeing in the winter

  1. Ani 23 August 2011 at 11:10 pm #

    Dawn Simulators – I have one of these daylight alarmclocks and have found it invaluable in the autumn and winter months. The alarm consists of a unit with a light that gradually increases in intensity over a 30 minute period until it is at it’s brightest when an alarm usually sounds (although I turn the alarm off as the light is more than enough to wake me in a gentle fashion).

    There are many studies now to show that these dawn simulators work well for SAD:

    *Terman M & Terman JS. 2006. Controlled trial of naturalistic dawn simulation and negative air ionization for seasonal affective disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 163:2126-2133
    *Avery DH et al. 2001. Dawn simulation and bright light in the treatment of SAD: a controlled study. Biol Psychiatry. 50:205-216
    *Avery DH et al. 1993. Dawn simulation treatment of winter depression: a controlled studyAm J Psychiatry. 150:113-117

    There is also evidence that they are useful even for those who do not suffer from SAD e.g.
    *Leppamaki S et al. 2003. Effect of simulated dawn on quality of sleep, a community based trial. BMC Psychiatry. 3:14
    *Thorn L et al. 2004. The effect of dawn simulation on the cortisol response to awakening in healthy participants. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 29:925-930

  2. Miranda 26 August 2011 at 2:43 pm #

    I have suffered from diagnosed SAD for over 15 years and having tried a number of treatment options – have settled on use of medication (autumn and winter), a light box and a daylight alarm clock. I also understand the importance of diet and exercise. I started on a low carb diet this February so autumn/winter will be my first ‘low carb SAD season’ and I am interested to see if the diet change will alleviates any of my symptoms? I suspect it will as during SAD my carb cravings increased which no doubt added to energy peaks and dips (resulting in big sleeps!).

    On a personal note, I find the first signs of Spring a real lift so purposely plant early flowering bulbs in my garden.

  3. cyril satorsky 26 August 2011 at 6:07 pm #

    Can you purchase these in Canada ?

  4. Feona 26 August 2011 at 6:30 pm #

    I tried a light box some years ago and followed the instructions for use carefully. Unfortunately, I had headaches and nausea as a result of using it, plus a weird effect on my brain, as if it was working more slowly than usual, and had to stop. I phoned the makers after experiencing these symptoms and was told that some people do have these negative side effects and shouldn’t use light boxes. I don’t suffer from SAD as badly now – in fact, they eased when I retired 3 years ago. I’m convinced it’s simply because I don’t spend hours in an air-conditioned room under artificial lighting any more. Any comments Dr Briffa?

  5. Betsy Branstetter 26 August 2011 at 7:02 pm #

    I found that when I upped my dosage of vitamin D (due to doctor’s orders) my SAD was virtually non-existent.I was taking Vitamin D drops and was probably getting 5,000 units a day.

  6. Donald G 27 August 2011 at 1:21 am #

    Some have expressed concern about eye damage from much exposure to strong blue light. Have you any thoughts on this? Eyes are precious!

  7. RoboJ1M 6 October 2011 at 5:32 pm #

    I replaced all the lights in my house with daylight bulbs from the rather unfortunately named

    My favourite is my Lightbox Daystar tube in kitchen from here:

    It’s amazing, I can’t tell the difference between it and sunlight.

    Now it’s daylight in my flat even in the middle of the night 🙂


Leave a Reply