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Smart Home

How light therapy can fight jet lag, insomnia and depression

A lamp might be the answer to what ails you.

light-therapy

Smaller light therapy lamps are better for desk use. 

Alina Bradford/CNET

Daylight is crucial to keeping our mental and physical health on track. Too little natural light -- and the vitamin D and other chemicals the body makes when it is exposed to it -- can lead to depressionsleep disorders and even dementia, according to various studies. 

The natural cure is to go outside and enjoy as much sunlight as you can. But as the seasons change and the days get shorter, that becomes difficult. 

And if you live far away from the equator (think Alaska, Canada, New Zealand, Scandinavia) you might experience very few daylight hours in the winter.

Fortunately, special lamps can stand in for the sun and help with mood disorders and sleep issues. Here's what you need to know about them.

Note: Always consult with a medical professional before trying light therapy. Those with certain eye problems or sensitivity to light may have adverse reactions.

How does a lack of sunlight affect us?

Light receptors in our eyes trigger our brains to make certain hormones that keep us awake and balance our moods. Without the proper amount of light, the brain doesn't make these important chemicals.

In the fall and winter, shorter days with less sunlight can mean less hormone production and in turn, affect your mood. For example, if you're tired and depressed when fall and winter comes around, it could be a lack of sunlight to blame. You may even have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that changes with the seasons.

Beyond mental health issues, a lack of sunlight can affect your sleep. If you work the night shift or in enclosed offices and rarely see the light of day, you could suffer from insomnia.

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What is light therapy?

Light therapy is a way to expose yourself to bright light when sunlight isn't as plentiful. Light therapy lamps or boxes simulate bright sunlight, giving off much more light than the typical lightbulbs in your home.

You just set the lamp around 2 feet (0.6 meters) away from your face for a certain amount of time each day. To get the timing right, you'll want to consult with your doctor about your specific problem.

What can these special lamps help with? According to the Mayo Clinic, light therapy can be used to treat a wide range of problems, including SAD, sleep disorders and jet lag. Studies have even shown that in patients with depression, light therapy can work as well as antidepressants. CNET's Lexy Savvides recently explored the benefits of a smart sleep mask which uses similar light therapy properties to combat jet lag.

How to choose your lamp

You can buy light therapy lamps online for as little as $30 (around £23 and AU $42). I personally use a Verilux HappyLight, but most therapy lights work in a similar way.

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The Verilux HappyLight provides 10,000 lux.

Verilux

When shopping, look for a lamp that has a light rating of 10,000 lux, which you'll find in the product description. 

While lumens measure total amount of light output, lux measures that light's intensity. To be specific, one lux is the measured amount of illumination created when one lumen is evenly distributed over an area that is around around 11 square feet (around 1 square meter) in size. 

Don't worry, you don't need to memorize that tidbit. Just aim for 10,000 lux on the highest setting and you'll be OK.

That brings me to the next thing you need to look for: Settings. Typically, if you use the lamp throughout the day, you'll want a brighter setting for the start of your day and a dimmer setting for later in the day. This will prevent you from being too awash with hormones that keep you awake when you're trying to go to sleep.

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Also, be sure your pick has a special coating or cover that filters out UV rays. If you don't, you'll need to wear sunscreen to protect your skin. No, I'm not kidding.

I keep my lamp on my desk in my home office, so I chose one that is small. There are units on the market that are very large, though. The size you choose just depends on where you'll put it and if you want to carry it when you travel. 

For example, if you move around your workspace a lot, choose a larger lamp that will shine on you no matter where you are in the work area. This lamp wouldn't be practical if you need to pack it in your carry-on, though.

Why you need color-changing light bulbs: We've got a couple of suggestions for lighting up your home.

How to make your lighting smart: Smart lightbulbs are all the rage, but there are other options for making your lighting smart, too.