This Lamp Changed My Mornings—But Is it As Legit as I Think it Is?

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I recently started working from home full time, and while that has been a dream of mine for a while, it certainly takes some getting used to. My apartment has really bad insulation, so I put thermal curtains up to block out the cold, and, as a result, much of the light. Do you know what effect getting basically zero natural light has on your alertness, productivity, and mental health? Not a good one. (Are you surprised?) On top of that, I’ve radically cut back on my caffeine intake because of related gut problems. So, I needed a solution for two things I was missing: natural light throughout the day and that jolt of alertness in the mornings. My saving grace: a light therapy lamp, as recommended by my friend in medical school.

Spending half an hour beside my fancy new lamp made me feel like I was getting what I needed. But when I updated my psychiatrist about my new Amazon purchase, she asked me, “Is it an actual therapy lamp?” I looked back at the product description and quickly realized that, no, there was nothing officially therapeutic about my little lamp, regardless of the hilariously comforting product photography (who drinks out of a mug while smiling with closed eyes?). I wanted to figure out if I was a dope who fell for marketing, so I turned to sleep scientist Michelle Okun, PhD for answers.

First things first: I wanted to know what the science behind light therapy actually is. According to Dr. Okun, “Light is our main time keeper. It helps us regulate and keep our clocks in sync.” If you don’t get enough exposure to light (because, say, you’re working from home and can’t force yourself to go outside), Dr. Okun says, “a lot of these biological properties aren’t synched.” So, when you expose yourself to enough light via an artificial source, you can get those systems back in sync—plus, blue light, which is featured in the majority of therapy lamps, can also improve mood. In fact, adds Dr. Okun, “It has a similar efficacy to psychological treatment when used for seasonal affective disorder (SAD).” Light therapy is also often used as a treatment for jet lag.

But what about prescription versus commercial? Dr. Okun explains: “At least 10,000 lux is usually what is used for prescription purposes to mimic natural morning light outside. Most lights do not emit 10,000 lux.” (Mine does, thankfully!) But, she continues, “There’s some evidence that those commercial ones do actually have a positive impact, especially on mood.” In fact, Dr. Okun once purchased her own commercial therapy lamp to deal with Pittsburgh winters.

Dr. Okun hasn’t observed anyone having negative effects from using light therapy, commercial or otherwise, to manage minimal symptoms. “I don’t think there’s any harm, if it’s just for someone who wants to get a little more of an enhanced mood, or just get going in the morning,” she says. “But if you have a diagnosed disorder, SAD, and/or full-blown depression, then a doctor should be the one to prescribe it.” (It’s important to note that there is evidence that too much light exposure in the morning can trigger manic episodes in people with bipolar disorder.) 

I asked Dr. Okun if my notion that my over-the-counter (er, Amazon marketplace) therapy lamp could energize me as much as a cup of coffee was rooted in anything scientific. The answer was… sort of? “When we wake up in the morning and we are exposed to light, there is a quick surge of cortisol to prepare you and get ready for the day,” she explains. But I could also just be experiencing a placebo effect. That said, she adds, “They definitely help with mood, and mood is linked with performance and motivation.”

Since I bought a white-light lamp, and I’ve heard so much about blue light, I was curious if there was a real difference between the options. “With white light, you get the whole spectrum—that’s more reflective of natural light,” Dr. Okun says. Blue light, on the other hand, suppresses melatonin—that’s why it’s so bad to look at electronic screens before bed. Which is best? “White light is the best for getting you going in the morning, but for mood enhancement, blue light seems to be just as effective,” Dr. Okun explains. These days, you can also buy green lights—but that feels a little too Star Wars-y for my workday.

All in all, does Dr. Okun support the purchase of therapy lamps, either through a prescription or online? Her answer is a resounding yes. “Light therapy is a really good option that’s not really been explored and discussed enough,” she says. If you live in an area with reduced natural light or you work from home and barely get outside (like me!), “you need to do whatever you can.” But she still recommends a daily dose of actual sunlight: “Try to step outside for ten minutes in the morning and midday to get that circadian regulation in place,” she says.

With Dr. Okun’s validation in my back pocket, I can live without fear that I bought into false advertising or am wasting my time on products that don’t work. Since my lamp has enough lux and I’m using it to boost production and take in more natural light (rather than to treat more serious conditions), there’s really no downside. So, I’ll keep my lamp as part of my morning routine—and maybe, I guess, go outside once in a while.