Therapy lamps tested:’ The optical equivalent of freezing cold shower’

The light fantastic or just a bit Sad? Our novelists try out four therapy lights

Betterlife Light Pad Starter SAD Light Box , 59.99

As cold winter nights approach, the exhort to hunker down under a warm duvet for as long as possible seems quite normal to me and likewise, a healthy craving for baked potatoes. But if you find yourself becoming persistently low in mood and lethargic towards winter each year, you may be somewhere on the Sad spectrum. The acronym for seasonal affective disorder reflects its nature: recurrent depressive illness with a seasonal pattern, usually worse in winter. While full-blown Sad can be a debilitating condition necessitating professional assist, the light therapy lamps that can be used to treat it are often marketed towards well people with mild symptoms. As a person who had lays down extra fat reserves like a bear around this time of year and is often snoozy in the mornings, I felt well qualified to exam one.

A Sad lamp sounds a bit like the naughty step a joyless place where you sit and think about what youve done. Still, I was hopeful that mine would be a beautiful object, smooth and luminescent like an aliens egg. I was let down by the unromantic appearance of the therapy lighting. The gray, clunky tablet looked like something you might detect suspended over an amateur cellar mushroom laboratory, or perhaps an unconvincing medical prop on a TV show.

The tablet emits a very bright, blue-white fluorescent lighting that delivers the optical equivalent of a freezing cold shower. The instructions recommend two hours of exposure every morning, held at six inches from the face. Perhaps part of its therapeutic consequence is this enforced period of complete immobility, or the flood of relief when you eventually stop waterboarding your eyes with photons. I used it at the more reasonable distance of 12 inches and squeezed in the two hours of light exposure in between other activities. It had no discernible consequence except for reducing my risk of napping to zero, which I appreciated.

A week into my one-woman trial, the tablet felt like an albatross in my life a dead, grey albatross. Even looking at it while it was switched off virtually brought on a migraine. Despite this, the ritual of using the lighting convinced me that its worth trying to mitigate the effects of colder, darker days. Rather than staring at a lightbox, Ill be getting outdoors whenever its bright and dry, and espousing celebrations, roaring flames, and feasts. Farrah Jarral

Lumie desklamp , 120

It feels more like a pet than a remedy … Chitra Ramaswamy testing her desklamp. Photo: Murdo MacLeod

Its 4.30 pm and Im under the Sad lamp again. The Lumies broad head spotlights the pizza Im about to put in the oven for my son, building the cheese glow an autumnal orange. This is gloomy hour, in the same indisputable way that 6pm is happy hour. The lamps instruction booklet suggests I sit down, read, watch TV, or do some crafting while enjoying some teatime bright-light therapy, but if I could sit down and read I wouldnt be sad and tired.

Bright-light therapy claims to make “youre feeling” more energised, alert, and to improve your mood. This sounds great. Aside from yawning and standing on little die-cast cars, I tend to get little done in the blue period when late afternoon slumps into early evening. Also Im in Scotland, where darkness falls earlier, heavier and grimmer than down south. And I run from home, alone, and have a three-year-old. I require this.

I decide to remove the diffuser, intensifying the lighting to 2,500 lux and reducing the recommended therapy time from an hour to 30 minutes. This feels like cheating but afterwards, when my son is in bed and Im lying on the sofa watching Great British Menu, I do feel more alert. I celebrate by watching two more episodes, then fret that Ive luxed my eyeballs too close to bedtime and wont be able to sleep. I pass out as usual.

The other key time to use a lightbox is in the morning, although I wake annoyingly early , no matter the season. Nevertheless, I do everything required of me between 7-8am by Sad lamplight and get a mild headache, though this might be down to worrying whether Im prioritising Lumie time enough. Eventually I go outside and walk the dog in the weak lighting of the giant Lumie in the sky. I feel much brighter, even when I end up searching for dog poo hidden in dead foliages for 10 minutes. It turns out you cant beat natural lighting, even when its a bit dark.

By day three I find myself straying around the flat a lot, carrying the lamp by its flexible neck, looking for a place to plug in because I dont have a desk. It starts to feel more like a pet than a winter blues remedy. I wonder if the dog might be getting jealous. I start to think Lumie appears a bit like ET. Eventually I commit to a bleak corner and sit in the white-blue lighting until I have to get up and do something else. It seems light therapy is incompatible with my life, or rather the early years of parenting. And there is no sorcery lamp for that. Chitra Ramaswamy

Beurer WL-8 0 wakeup light , 90

The screen was so bright it was difficult to get to sleep … Tim Jonze with his wakeup lamp. Photo: Rob Greig for the Guardian

Of course, I jumped at the chance to exam this alarm. Not because I struggle to get up in the morning( although I do, horribly) or that I struggle with Sad( I dont ), but because Ive spent the last few months being woken up regularly by a crying baby. Reviewing this clock was the perfect excuse to grab a proper nights sleep in the spare room( Sorry darling, but its for run ).

The idea is simple enough. Instead of a noisy alarm running off and leaving you a confused and frightened mess clambering around in the dark for a snooze button, sunrise alarms such as this one precede any noise with a gradually increasing lighting that mimics a beautiful summer sunrise. The notion is that by the time the alarm sounds youre already awake, or at least coming around to the idea.

So did it make getting up any easier? Its hard to be conclusive, because even if sunrise alarms do work, this one seemed pretty useless. It was vexing to programme and had an LCD screen so bright it made it difficult to get to sleep. By the time I floated off I did so in a state of mild fury, which surely wasnt the phase. The sunrise function worked nicely and did seem to wake me up. But did it prevent the sinking feeling that I would now have to get out of bed and trudge into the office that accompanies most mornings with a standard alarm clock? Not really. I felt no brighter or more refreshed I just didnt have to turn the light on to find my towel.

As alarm clocks go it was functional( actually, it was a bit rubbish does anyone really want to be woken by disjointed four-second loops-the-loops of waves or pan pipes ?) but I was forced to accept that if you really want to ensure you get straight out of bed in the morning, theres a more expensive and efficient piece of kit on the market called a baby. Tim Jonze

Lumie Bodyclock Starter 30 Wake-Up Light Alarm Clock , 56.99

Wakey-wakey … Stephen Moss with his alarm side lighting. Photo: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

The Lumie Bodyclock have committed themselves to wake you with a sunrise that naturally helps to regulate your sleep and wake patterns Youll wake up in a better mood, find it easier to get up, and feel more energetic during the day. Theres also a fading sunset to help you unwind at the end of the day and drift off to sleep.

It sounds marvellous, but theres one problem. I have no idea how to define the damn thing. There are instructions in English, French, German, Swedish and Dutch, but they may as well be in Swahili, and after half an hour Im in need of a comforting sunset.

The default setting is for 7am, so in the end I settle for that, even though largely because of an addiction to late-night internet chess its a bit earlier than I commonly wake up. The translucent hemisphere is a beautiful thing to have on the bedside table, though at 59.95 such beauty does not is cheap. But will it run?

On our first night together I keep wondering when the sun will rise, and wake up at least twice once at 4am. Eventually I am aware of the artificial daybreak violating there is half an hour in which light gradually inundates the room and conflict into consciousness at about 6.50. Unfortunately I then go back to sleep, the lighting turns itself off, and I dont get up until 8.15.

Day two is much better. I sleep soundly, dont fret about the clock, and am eased into consciousness by the gradually increasing intensity of the lighting. By 6.40 I am fully awake and watch the glow grow until it reaches its 7am peak. I havent yet mastered the voice setting presuming there is one but the light seems to have done the trick by itself. Despite going to bed at 12.30 am I feel surprisingly alert, and my mood is much improved by a Haydn piano sonata on Radio 3.

That, though, is the high point. On day three, I sleep poorly perhaps I need to activate the sunset feature( if only I could find it) and am so tired I dont wake until 7.24 am, with the light already flaming. The daybreak has failed to wake me, indicating I can sleep through anything if I am tired enough. It seems I require a sudden, piercing alarm, which instead defeats the object of the sunrise.

My conclusion is obvious: the key is not a 60 Bodyclock, but your own body clock. I require a lot of sleep, and really ought to try to go to bed not later than 11 pm, having gale down soothingly beforehand( a warm bath, cocoa, Newsnight) rather than by playing intense chess against angry, abusive Americans online. I would then, quite naturally, already be stirring at 6.30 am when the clock-induced daybreak could guide me into the day.

But Id like an even more sophisticated version. As well as the lighting, would it not be possible to have a crescendo of birdsong, reaching a peak just before 7am; some Haydn or Mozart to ease me into consciousness and make me believe all is well with the world; and a cup of tea ready to drink at 7.10? A light-clock-radio-Teasmade. Preferably one thats easy to situated. That shouldnt be too difficult, should be used? Stephen Moss

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