I Tried Using a SAD Lamp During Winter to Boost My Mood—Here’s What Happened

Photo: Stocksy/Wave

December may officially be the start of winter, but holiday gatherings and New Year's celebrations keep the (literally) cold, hard truth from setting in: it's dark and freezing—and will be for what feels like an eternity.

But come January, it's all I can think about. The sun sets while I'm still at the office (hello, vitamin D deficiency), my outfit options range from thick sweater to thickest sweater, and I've given up outdoor runs entirely.

It comes as no surprise that during these months, seasonal depression—AKA Seasonal Affective Disorder—affects close to 10 million Americans each year, with 4 out of every 5 of those women.

I definitely count myself among them. And, since medication isn't always right for these short-term mental-health changes and a move down south doesn't fall into the "reality" category, I decided that this winter, I would try something else.

Enter light therapy: a safe-for-you bulb system that's meant to brighten your mood and give back those stolen winter endorphins. Because daily workouts and matcha lattes aren't doing the trick, I placed my order, screwed the bulb into my lamp, and tried out light therapy to see if it would brighten my winter mood.

Here's what happened when I put the SAD lamp to the test.

Photo: Philips

But first—how does it help?

To understand fully what this light was doing for me, I consulted Todd Manegold, senior director of product marketing at the "smart lightbulb" powerhouse Philips Lighting.

"People are so wired up through technology that we can basically control everything through our phones—except for light," he explains. "But lighting has such a profound effect on the human body—how we feel and how we function—so why not make that personalized to enhance your day and mood?"

Hue's state-of-the-art designs look just like your average energy-efficient light bulbs—but they come with special customizable options, all meant to boost your mood in various ways. The white bulb emits a normal glow when first turned on; but from the Hue app you're able to control the tone of light—from a blueish hue for concentration to a hint of warm orange for deep relaxation. Manegold says that every person is different, but the app options act as a guide to feel out which your body reacts the most positively to.

Think of opening your eyes on a pretty spring morning—feels nice and relaxing, right?

Makes sense—I'm a sucker for some soft, romantic fairy lights. But how does that relate to the winter months specifically, especially when it comes to "fake light" trying to make up for lost daylight?

"It all goes back to how you feel when you first wake up in the morning," Manegold says. He then paints a picture that I think we can all relate to: First, think of opening your eyes on a pretty spring morning—feels nice and relaxing, right? Now, imagine waking up, but it's pitch black because the sun isn't up yet and you see cold, rain hitting your windows. Not so nice.

"The idea with our products is to mimic that feeling of a bright and sunny morning all year round," he explains. "If you're always waking up to the same light, your body can be 'tricked' into the same rhythm and feel energized [despite winter's dark mornings]."

And the best part about these bulbs, he says? You can control them all through the app—meaning you can shift from the energizing blue tones during the day to the sleep-inducing red tones when you're cozying into bed.

Using a SAD lamp to unwind at night
Photo: Stocksy/Hayden Williams

Let there be light: putting the bulbs to the test

My first instinct when I received the Hue Starter Kit was to set up my SAD lamp right at my desk—after all, where else do I spend more time?

The Well+Good office is a spacious open floor plan, with huge windows for natural light. In summer? Beautiful. But come winter in New York City, where the sun sets by 4:30 p.m., we're left with only bright, fluorescent overheads to fill the darkness.

At first, a small desk lamp with the warmly lit bulb was a welcome addition—leaving our office feeling a little bit more cozy and homey at the 5 o'clock hour. But, after speaking to Manegold, he insisted that I bring the bulb home to my apartment to feel the full effects—he was afraid that the single bulb wasn't enough to overpower the overall fluorescence. (Fair enough.) So, against my co-workers wishes, I then brought the fixture home and placed it on my bedside table. Using the app I set it to automatically turn on when my alarm went off in the morning, at 6:45 a.m. sharp.

Although it admittedly seemed way too bright on my first few (otherwise dark) mornings, I slowly began to feel energized by the glow. Instead of peeking out through one cranky eye to see what grim weather would be greeting me that day, I began to softly wake up and stretch myself awake—feeling well-rested and, dare I say it, happy.

Instead of peeking out through one cranky eye to see what grim weather would be greeting me that day, I began to softly wake up and stretch myself awake—feeling well-rested and, dare I say it, happy.

While I can't say for sure if it had a lasting impact on my energy throughout the day, my mornings went from grouchy and tired to relaxed and well-rested.

Similarly, my evening routine got a soothing upgrade. As recommended, I set the tones to the golden-toned "Relax" option for my evenings. While I often spend the 30-minutes before my bedtime reading (AKA lulling myself to sleep, per Arianna Huffington's suggestion), this lighting definitely helped—leaving me feeling comfortable and toasty as I dozed off.

While the $129 starter kit is certainly not cheap, it promises 15,000 hours of light—or 625 days if left on continuously. And if you're hesitant to make that investment, the bulbs are sold à la carte (for $30) to test out their mood-enhancing skills.

I'll be the first to admit that in early January, my seasonal depression might not be at its worst—but I have a feeling my brightly lit morning routine will keep it at bay way into the darkness of late February.

Until then, I'll gladly take a gentle wake-up call in the form of app-magic lighting.

It's time to take charge of your mornings—find out how to be the girl who always makes time for her a.m. workout. Or take a cue from a mindfulness pro with Kelly Morris' trick for waking up happy every single day.

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