Light up: can a solar simulator improve my winter mood and lethargy?

Are you feeling depressed? Lethargic? Is it because every year our social, environmental and economic situation gets worse? Or is it because reduced daylight has negatively affected your circadian rhythm? If the latter, then I have good news! There’s a lamp for that.

Vitamin L by Lumie is a powerful rectangular sun simulator that “treats the symptoms of winter blues and Sad”. Ah yes, seasonal affective disorder, setting the bar for sarcastic acronyms in the diagnostic field. (Provocative aside: the latest science finds depression to be a stable phenomenon, unrelated to seasons.) Still, we like the comfort of medical terms. Even the device’s name plays into this. Vitamin L? Come on, now. Vitamin Nice Try.

Light therapy stimulates the retina, to suppress the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and increase levels of mood-boosting serotonin. And, lordy, that sounds good to me because another 12 months of this hot mess I cannot do. Vitamin L is slimline – roughly the size of a library reference book – portable and UV-free.

I slot in the kickstand and set it on my desk at a 20cm distance to receive the full 10,000 lumens. This is important. At a 30cm distance, my retinas would only receive roughly half that, and at 40cm about half again, twice doubling the treatment time needed to feel any effect. Basically, you have to be intimate with the light. A friend owns a larger, older light box and takes it to bed with him. Whatever gets you through the night, I suppose.

I give my own, compact Lumie the once-over, trying to find the button to turn it on. When I do, my face is right up next to the screen. The sudden white blaze disorients me. I am a cockroach caught in the kitchen. A prisoner halfway up a wall. I’m in the dentist’s chair.

I recover my senses and try to adjust to the knockout field of photons. It feels stark and chilly. The experience reminds me of the time I changed my bedside lamp but didn’t realise I had bought a bulb that had too high a wattage. When I turned the light on, my boudoir resembled a chamber of extraordinary rendition.

I use it for a week: 30 minutes in the morning, a top-up session a few hours later. During this time, the sky is always fifty shades of grey: dreich beyond belief. I come to appreciate the little window of energy. Particularly in the afternoons, when the light is extinguished before teatime, and I begin to feel less like I’m hugging a strip light in Bar Italia at 4am.

I drink up the lumens and focus more on the panel itself, and its texture. The LEDs are covered with a “rippled diffuser” – a plastic face with a granular feel quilted into diagonal bands. It is rigid, but with the topography of a padded surface, which does soften the quality of the white light. Does it soften the understanding that humanity is walking towards a cliff-edge? Not really! It’s just a lamp. But still.

It does keep me awake while it’s on. Yet it doesn’t feel natural to constantly sit right next to a bright light. It’s hardly a bay window on an August morning, where the light feels constant and enveloping, even as you move around.

It wouldn’t be fair to criticise Lumie for failing to replicate the power of the sun. (Although it probably has before, in its sunrise alarm clocks, which are terrific.) But as soon as I turn Vitamin L off, the urge to sleep is still there. I can’t say my mood or lethargy have improved. It doesn’t work for me, this sitting next to a big lamp, although others swear by it.

One morning during my trial, the sun emerges briefly from the blanket of grey, like a David Bowie cameo in Zoolander, reminding me what radiance looks like. The sun engulfs Lumie’s light, warms my blood and makes the room come alive. It’s good to remember that she is always up there, even when we can’t see her; when the forecast is bad, the clouds endless. Shining bright as ever, forcing everything to grow and live. The days are getting longer. Everything’s not lost.

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