Sun lamp therapy involves exposing the body to artificial light that resembles sunlight. It may help improve symptoms of a range of conditions, such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and depression.

People with SAD are more likely to develop symptoms during the winter months when there is less natural light outside. Sun lamp therapy exposes them to more light, which can help ease symptoms.

Sun lamp therapy may help regulate the circadian rhythm, which governs when a person wakes up and when they feel sleepy, as well as digestion and other functions.

This article discusses what sun lamp therapy is, how it may help with SAD, depression, and sleep, and how to use it.

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Sun lamp therapy is a type of light therapy. It uses bright light to mimic natural sunlight with the purpose of improving the symptoms of certain health conditions.

Exposure to light has many effects on the brain. The daily cycle of light and dark helps the brain regulate the body’s circadian rhythm, causing sleepiness at night and wakefulness in daylight.

Exposure to light can also affect mood. As a result, people can use sun lamp therapy in several ways.

Sun lamps and daylight lamps are generally similar. They produce light that looks like natural sunlight, although with varying degrees of brightness.

UV lamps are different because they emit a clinically significant amount of UV radiation. People use this for phototherapy, which is a different kind of light treatment.

UV light does have therapeutic uses for mood and sleep, but it also causes sunburn, increases the risk of skin cancer, and can damage the eyes. There is also no official UV threshold that separates UV lamps and sun lamps into different categories.

For this reason, a person who is looking for a sun lamp should avoid those that emit UV or get one with a UV filter. Check the product information for data on:

  • the type of light it emits
  • whether it emits any UV, and if so, how much
  • the brightness of the light, which scientists measure in lux

A 2019 review recommends that if a person wishes to use a sun lamp for SAD, they should look specifically for lamps that are for this purpose. Others may not have the right level of brightness.

Sun lamps that mimic sunlight may help to ease SAD symptoms.

Although it is possible to experience symptoms in warmer months, most people experience SAD in the darker and colder months, when there is less natural light and people are less likely to spend time outdoors.

This decrease in sunlight exposure can reduce serotonin levels. Serotonin influences the circadian rhythm and a person’s mood.

People with SAD also tend to have higher melatonin levels. Melatonin is the hormone that the brain makes to help a person feel sleepy. Too much melatonin in the daytime can cause fatigue and sleepiness.

Sun lamps counteract this by simulating natural light, which is why this therapy is a common part of SAD treatment.

Sun lamps may help other types of depression, too. In a 2019 review of previous studies, researchers found some evidence that bright light could help people with both seasonal and nonseasonal depression.

However, much of the research to date on nonseasonal depression involved a small number of participants. More research is necessary to clarify how effective sun lamp therapy is for depression and how people with this condition may use it for the best results.

Sun lamp therapy may help a person regulate their sleep-wake cycle. However, whether it helps will depend on the root cause of the problem.

Bright light may help people who have a disrupted circadian rhythm due to:

  • jet lag
  • shift work
  • circadian rhythm disorders

Learn more about fixing sleep schedules here.

Many lamps for SAD do not emit UV light. Those that do may have a UV filter or only emit low amounts. Because of this, they do not help with vitamin D levels.

That said, low vitamin D levels may be a risk factor for SAD as a lack of vitamin D can affect serotonin levels. People who are concerned they may not be getting enough vitamin D can try combining sun lamp therapy and other sources of vitamin D, such as supplements.

Learn more about the benefits and sources of vitamin D here.

How a person uses sun lamp therapy depends on their aims. For SAD, people typically use a lightbox or sun lamp at the same time every day while they sit at a table or desk.

A doctor may recommend the following steps:

  1. Position the lamp on a flat surface where a person can use it in the morning. For example, they may place it on their desk to use at work.
  2. The lamp should be at roughly eye level and a safe distance away from the face. In previous research, scientists usually placed these devices 30–80 centimeters away.
  3. Switch the lamp on. Do not stare directly at the light while in use. People can read, work, or eat while they use the lamp, but they should not close their eyes or sleep.
  4. Begin by using the lamp for a short amount of time, such as 15 minutes per day.

According to the University of British Columbia, people typically start seeing results in around 2 weeks. If a person does not notice any benefits, they can try increasing by 15-minute increments up to 60 minutes. They should only do this with a doctor’s supervision.

There is no consensus on how bright sun lamps should be. A 2019 review states that exposure to 2,500 lux for 2 hours per day, or 10,000 lux for 30 minutes, may be beneficial. Other studies have used shorter duration times.

A doctor can provide advice on the best way to use a sun lamp.

Although non-UV light therapy is generally safe, there are some potential side effects people can experience, such as:

  • eye irritation or eye strain
  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • agitation

Usually, these side effects are mild and get better on their own. If they persist, people can try reducing the duration of each light therapy session.

However, some people may not tolerate bright light therapy. For example, people with migraine who find that bright light triggers their symptoms may not be able to use it.

Rarely, people with bipolar disorder can develop mania in response to sun lamp therapy. Some research suggests using sun lamps at midday is more beneficial for people with this condition, but it is best for a person to speak with a doctor about this before trying it.

Sun lamp therapy involves exposure to bright light. It may improve the symptoms of SAD, depression, and circadian rhythm problems.

UV lamps may offer additional benefits, such as increased vitamin D levels. However, UV radiation also has risks, so it is advisable only to use sun lamps that do not emit UV. People can get vitamin D from safer sources.

People interested in trying sun lamp therapy should consult a healthcare professional for guidance.