Growing up, I was spoiled with 300 days of sun every year. Living in Colorado, where the sun was almost always shining—even when the temperatures were below freezing—meant that I developed absolutely zero coping mechanisms for gloominess. So, as an adult who now lives in Chicago, I don’t just experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)—I act as if I’ll never see the sun again. In order to prepare for the gloominess, I make a coping plan with my therapist in early August, lean into cozy vibes like it’s my second job, and take vitamin D religiously. And before you ask, yes—despite all of this, fall and winter are still my favorite seasons.
Given my borderline-aggressive approach to countering my own seasonal mood swings, the second I saw the Olly Light Therapy Lamp in last year’s gift guide, I knew I needed to add it to my cart. I’ll try just about anything to keep myself functional through this gloomy season, so purchasing a tiny little lamp that claims to mimic sunlight was a no-brainer. Nearly one year later, I’ve formed a full-on attachment to what I lovingly refer to as my “SAD lamp.” Here are my unfiltered thoughts on the wellness item that will be my saving grace this winter.
How does a light therapy lamp work?
The body depends on exposure to sunlight in order to know when it’s time to wake up and when it is time to sleep, otherwise known as the circadian rhythm. According to the National Institute of Health, sunlight tells the body to halt melatonin production and increase cortisol for more energy, and lack of sunlight (or red/orange light, such as in the sunset) stimulates the body to begin releasing melatonin for sleep. In the winter when there is less sunlight, the body produces more melatonin in response to longer nights and shorter days—in other words, it’s not only normal but healthy to want to go home and curl up under a blanket as soon as the sun sets at 4 p.m.
If you not only feel less energy and sleepier during colder months but also feel sadder or moodier, there’s a biological explanation for that, too. Melatonin has a precursory hormone: serotonin, AKA the “happy hormone,” meaning that melatonin and serotonin affect one another; with a bigger release of melatonin, you get less serotonin. According to the National Institute of Health, changes in serotonin and melatonin disrupt normal daily rhythms, which can lead to mood and behavior changes. Also, lack of vitamin D (which we can naturally get from sunlight) contributes to mood; according to a 2011 study, inadequate vitamin D levels were tied to depression and other mental disorders. In summary, the biological causes behind SAD have to do with sunlight.
Enter: A light therapy lamp. Light therapy lamps like Olly’s help to regulate the body’s daily exposure to high-wavelength light, which is intended to mimic sunlight. This exposure ensures the body is producing sufficient serotonin throughout the day and releases melatonin when it’s supposed to at night. As stated in Olly’s lab note, “When we wake up in the morning and stimulate ourselves with adequate 480nm wavelength of sunlight, the body produces a hormone called serotonin that makes us feel fresh, motivated, and energetic.” Light therapy lamps also release vitamin D, like sunlight. According to a 1996 study on vitamin D, one hour of light therapy significantly decreased SAD symptoms.
When you can’t get outside frequently during the day, live in a space with poor exposure to sunlight, or simply reside in a gloomy place, a light therapy lamp can help the body both balance its circadian rhythm and get exposure to vitamin D—even during the dead of winter.
My review of Olly’s Light Therapy Lamp:
At the risk of stating the obvious, using a light therapy lamp is not a replacement for actually going outside. The 25-minute timer on the lamp is quite different from the actual sun, and nothing is going to boost your serotonin like being in real prolonged sunlight for several minutes, especially at the beginning of the day. Additionally, there are other benefits to getting outside in nature, even when it’s cloudy and gloomy. So, no—you cannot survive on light therapy lamps alone during the colder months.
Disclaimers aside, over the course of several months of using Olly’s Light Therapy lamp consistently, it genuinely makes a difference in my overall mood. Incorporating this lamp into my morning routine has boosted my overall energy during the first few hours of my workday, which makes a huge difference in how my mood progresses throughout the rest of the day. The thing that sets the Olly lamp aside from other light therapy lamps for me? Frankly, it’s the portable size and the fact that it’s cute enough to keep on my bedside table or desk at all times. This lamp is about the size of a candle and comes in several cute colors, so it blends in seamlessly with the rest of my decor. It’s battery-powered and it uses a USB-C charger, so I can use my regular laptop charger to plug it in when it needs a charge rather than dealing with tons of wires.
The fact that this lamp is so tiny yet packs such a big punch of LED light has been the biggest game changer for me. The portability means that I can quite literally set it in front of me while I am still horizontal in bed right when I wake up—now that’s what I call lazy girl biohacking. I also love that the lamp has two intensity settings that I can oscillate between depending on the gloominess of the day and how much light I feel like I need at a given hour. Plus, I don’t have to regulate how long I’m using the lamp since it automatically switches off after a 25-minute session. Using this lamp consistently over several days is what has made the biggest difference in my mood. Though I may not feel instantly sunnier after one session, when I use this lamp once a day over the course of a few weeks, I feel better equipped to handle the cloudy days that I know can throw my mental health into a bit of a tailspin otherwise.
My “SAD lamp” is a major mood and energy booster and definitely helps my symptoms, but is not a cure-all. I count vitamin D supplementation, therapy, general self-care routines, and daily time in front of the light therapy lamp as all important pieces of my care plan to help me get through Seasonal Affective Disorder and improve my overall ability to cope with weather-related mood swings.
How to incorporate a light therapy lamp into your daily routine
Use it first thing in the morning, or as early as you can
Fans of neuroscientist Andrew Huberman know that the early morning is the most important time to expose yourself to bright light because it boosts cortisol levels and prepares the body to release serotonin and melatonin throughout the day when it’s supposed to. For me, using the Olly lamp shortly after waking up proves most effective for regulating my energy levels and mood during Seasonal Affective Disorder season. Keep the lamp right on your bedside table and pop it on first thing in the morning—you don’t even need to get out of bed.
Whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed by screen time, pop it on mid-day
Though seasonal darkness was the reason why I first purchased my Olly lamp, in reality, there are so many reasons why most of us fail to receive adequate sunlight in our daily lives these days. Between staying indoors for work to being glued to our screens (sometimes even while we are outside), it can be easy to feel depleted from sunlight even in the middle of summertime. For me, turning on the Olly lamp in the middle of the day, especially when it’s nearing my lunch break and I’m starting to feel like I’m becoming one with my laptop screen, gives me a burst of energy by exposing me to a different wavelength of light than the one emanating from my technological devices.
Habit stack by turning it on when you read, journal, or work
As much as I wish society had built in time for all of us to dedicate 25 minutes of our days in the morning to sitting and chilling in the sunlight, unfortunately, most of us do not have time in our schedules to dedicate purely to light therapy. If sitting and doing nothing in front of a light therapy lamp doesn’t exactly fit on your Google calendar, the best thing about the portability and size of the Olly lamp is how easy it is to habit stack. I personally love to use my lamp first thing in the morning while I sit in bed and read or journal, but if for some reason I have a super packed day, I’ll even bring it over to my desk and use it while I work. For me, there’s no shame in trying to get as much serotonin as possible during the winter months, so I’ll be leaning on this little lamp whenever I can for the foreseeable future.