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Combat seasonal affective disorder with these four lighting strategies

When cold, winter weather creeps in and the days grow shorter, up to 20 percent of the U.S. population suffers from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD (Houselogic). Humans thrive in sunlight, meaning we’re more likely to have struggles related to behavior, mood and even circadian rhythm as the sun sets earlier, temperatures drop and plants wither. SAD is a potentially serious condition that requires treatment, like light therapy, to help regulate melatonin production and relieve symptoms.

In 1980, researchers found that exposing a person to high-intensity light caused an immediate but temporary cessation in melatonin production (Science). This finding led to the use of bright light to shift melatonin production, and consequently sleep/wake cycles, to treat circadian rhythm disorders and those with SAD (Sleep Review).

Here are four effective lighting strategies that can help shift melatonin production and combat SAD:

1. Light boxes

Light boxes are the standard light exposure treatment for SAD. For 30 to 60 minutes per day, patients view a flat-screen light box that produces full-spectrum lighting at an intensity of 10,000 lux.

2. Natural spectrum bulbs

Natural spectrum light bulbs integrate seamlessly into everyday life. These bulbs can be used in lieu of traditional bulbs, in everything from desk lamps to recessed lighting, to help combat SAD.

As an example, here is a light color temperature scale:

  • The darkness, like at nighttime, is 0 Kelvin (K).
  • Typical indoor light bulbs have a color temperature of just 2,700K – 3,000K.
  • Daylight at around noon on a sunny day is a bright 5,000K – 5,500K.

Natural spectrum light bulbs mimic daylight color temperatures to work in tandem with indoor and high-tech environments.

3. Reduced blue light

Harvard researchers compared the effects of 6.5 hours of blue light exposure to 6.5 hours of comparably bright green light. They found that blue light suppressed melatonin production for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (Harvard Medical School).

The strength of blue light can become a real liability at night, including blue light from electronic devices such as tablet computers and phones. Avoiding blue light at dawn or before bed can improve daily rhythms affected by the light. This can help people with SAD moderate their circadian rhythm. 

4. Dawn simulators

Dawn simulators gradually brighten a bedside lamp to mimic the rising of the sun. They can be very effective, because early morning light signals have a much more powerful effect on humans than light signals at other times of the day (Everyday Health). By creating a more natural, gradual increase in light levels, dawn simulators help people wake up to a simulated sunrise, which can be less aggressive on the system than a jump from one extreme to the other.

From simulating the gradual cadence of a sunrise to harnessing the power of blue light and the natural spectrum, these lighting strategies can be effective resources for those with SAD.