Mind And Body

Can a Light Box Help Boost Your Energy During the Winter Months?

If winter is wearing you down, you’re not alone. Up to 20 percent of people experience a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD) when the weather is cold and the days are short and dark. The lack of sunlight during the winter may be to blame, and some research suggests light boxes, which emit full-spectrum light that mimics outdoor light, as a solution.

But can a simple light box truly boost your mood? If you tend to feel a little more blah during the winter months and you’re looking for a way to feel happier and more energized while you wait for spring to arrive, it’s worth investigating. Let’s shed a little light on the subject to help you understand why you may struggle during the winter months and how a light box may be beneficial.

Why Winter Might Give You the Blues

The symptoms of SAD vary, but common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue (including a tendency to oversleep)
  • Feeling sadder than normal
  • An overall drop in energy levels
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Feeling overly sensitive to feelings of social rejection
  • An overall desire to avoid social situations
  • Cravings for sweet or starchy foods
  • Weight gain

Although experts don’t fully understand why so many of us experience these symptoms in the winter, research suggests a few likely culprits — some of which may be related.

Take, for instance, serotonin, the brain chemical that helps regulate mood. Research suggests people with SAD have reduced serotonin activity. Moreover, they don’t experience the same serotonin regulation through sunlight that other people do, which leads to decreased levels of serotonin during the winter. An overproduction of melatonin, which is integral to the sleep-wake cycle, may also be a factor. Essentially, serotonin and melatonin should adjust to seasonal changes in day length, but in individuals with SAD, the necessary adjustments don’t occur.

Can a Light Box Help Boost Your Energy During the Winter Months?

Vitamin D, which the body produces when the skin is exposed to sunlight (in addition to vitamin D in one’s diet) could also be involved. This vitamin is believed to promote serotonin activity, and in the winter when there’s less daylight, a vitamin D deficit becomes even more likely. This deficiency can have a negative impact on the production of serotonin, one of the more common neurotransmitters that regulates mood.

Another theory is the phase-shift hypothesis, which posits that SAD is the result of a disconnect between our circadian rhythm (which is closely tied to when the sun rises and sets) and our sleep-wake cycle (which is generally based on the clock and our schedules). As daylight wanes, that disconnect becomes greater, leading to fatigue, moodiness, and other SAD symptoms.

Could Light Box Therapy Be the Solution?

Most likely, yes! Although more research using rigorous study designs is needed, the available evidence suggests light therapy is an effective treatment for SAD. And these findings make sense; increased daily exposure to light during the winter mimics the exposure to outdoor light one would normally experience during the summer. It’s a promising treatment option that will likely only get better with time as experts more finely tune the ideal conditions of light therapy for specific disorders.

How to Get the Most Out of Light Therapy

If you’re eager to try light therapy for your SAD, the first step is to choose the right light box. As a smart first step, consider talking to your healthcare provider to make certain you don’t have any conditions or predispositions, like eye problems or bipolar disorder, that may influence your decision to use a light box. Assuming your doctor approves of your plan, keep these general recommendations in mind as you shop.

  • Choose a light box designed to treat SAD. Other light boxes that don’t specify use for SAD may treat other issues, like skin disorders, and are not the best option.
  • Your light box should provide exposure to 10,000 lux of light; if your box is less bright, you’ll need to spend more time with it for the intended result.
  • At the same time, your light box should filter out all (or at least most) UV light. Some light boxes have specific features designed to protect your eyes, but if yours doesn’t — or you have any concerns — talk to your doctor or eye specialist about ways to keep your eyes safe.
  • Size matters. A screen 200 square inches or larger will help ensure you receive the specified 10,000 lux dose. With a smaller screen, any small head movements might impact your ability to receive that dose.
  • Also, consider whether the box will fit your home and life. Light boxes come in varying shapes and styles, ranging from upright lamps to small, portable boxes. Your light box will only work if you use it, so choose one that suits your lifestyle!

Because light boxes aren’t regulated, it’s up to you to ensure the box you choose meets the necessary specifications. If you want to verify you’ve selected one that meets the above criteria, the Center for Environmental Therapeutics may be a good resource.

Once you’ve brought your light box home, it’s time to put it to good use. To ensure you get the most benefit possible out of your light box, adhere to the following guidelines when possible:

Time: Use a fluorescent light box with a diffusion screen within the first hour of waking in the morning. Assuming your light box provides the recommended 10,000 lux of full-spectrum light exposure, aim for 20 to 30 minutes daily.

Position: While you don’t want to stare directly into the light, aim to have the light near you — 16 to 24 inches from your face is ideal. Reading, eating, watching TV, or working on a computer are all fine, just so long as your eyes remain open but directed away from the light itself. The light box will work best if it projects downwards toward your eyes at an angle of about 30 degrees; if it’s tilted upwards at the eyes, this positioning can increase harsh glare.

Season: If you know you suffer from SAD, don’t wait until you’re struggling to begin. Start light therapy in the fall and continue through spring.


Light boxes for SAD generally cost around $100 to $200, but anyone who’s dealt with SAD knows this amount — along with 20 to 30 minutes a day — is a small price to pay to feel a little lighter and happier during the winter months.

By Kristen Seymour

Kristen Seymour is a freelance writer and editor who has spent the last 15 years covering topics ranging from food and fitness to pets, tech and travel for outlets including USA Today, Women’s Running, Fit Bottomed Girls (where she’s a co-owner), and many more. She works from her bike desk (highly recommend!) in sunny Sarasota, Florida. When she’s not writing, you can often find her walking, running, or drinking coffee at the nearby beach.