The BrightSpark is a freestanding lightbox, designed to help stabilise your natural bodily rhythms in the winter months when there’s little sunlight. Recommended for sufferers of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as part of a treatment called bright light therapy, it’s sold by Lumie, a Cambridge-based company known for its ‘natural wake up lamps.’ It retails at £115.
The Lumie Brightspark was made to tackle seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression, seasonal depression or winter blues, where people without generalised symptoms of depression experience depression during the winter.
Some researchers think SAD is a natural and beneficial human condition: a depressive mood reduces activity and therefore energy expenditure, which is useful when faced with winter food shortages, lack of sunlight and an increase in the number of calories needed to survive in cold weather.
But the modern western world has overcome these challenges with a stable food supply and adequate shelter. Our depressive mood, therefore, does not help because we have to be as effective and outward-facing in the winter as we are the rest of the year. It’s not like hibernating is an option.
The lack of sunlight remains, however. Enter bright light therapy, which is designed to help overcome SAD by mimicking natural sunlight and suppressing the production of melatonin, the sleepy hormone which is considered – at least partly – responsible for the decreased energy levels seen in winter months.
Lumie have been in the light therapy market for years, starting with a range of wake-up lamps which gradually get brighter in order to mimic a sunrise, expanding into ‘on-off’ lamps for bright light therapy. The Brightspark is one of their desk-standing bright lamp therapy models, in brushed aluminum with a plastic covering – diffusing the light – over the actual bulb.
The practicalities of using the Brightspark
It’s made to deliver 10,000 lux, considered the ideal strength for bright light therapy, at 20cm, so you need it close to your face to make a difference. It’s not designed to illuminate your work surface but to blast light into your eyes, and it’s important to realise this. You need it close to you – my initial positioning on my desk was more ‘standard lamp positioning’ and I felt greater benefit when I moved it just to the side of my mouse, nearer my face.
When should you use it? Whenever you’re stationary, in the same position, for 45-90 minutes. You can break up your treatment time into smaller units, but to be honest when I tried this I found it distracting – it felt much better to get a bigger blast in one go, although as you’ll read soon, I found having it on constantly the best solution.
I’ve seen ideas around using it when eating breakfast or doing your make-up. For me personally, I move around when having my breakfast so it wouldn’t suit me, and I don’t spend enough time eating breakfast (translation: I get up too late) to get a proper lightbox session in. I also don’t think most people spend enough time doing their make-up to make this scenario work. Sitting at a desk just feels like the right time to use it.
The light itself can be hard to adapt to. It’s more natural than those harsh, glaring bathroom strip lights, but it’s still rough-around-the-edges.
It’s not warm, yellow and comforting, like an evening lamp after dinner, but this is of course by design. It’s not made to relax you: it’s designed to suppress melatonin.
Actually, it strikes a decent balance: you’re not squinting and can get on with whatever you’re doing, but you do feel more ‘on it.’ And when you turn it off, the room feels very different. It’s a nice feeling, overall, having it on.
Finding the ideal treatment time
One of the challenges I’ve had is moving from treating it as an enjoyable light source to a ‘treatment.’ I much prefer using the lamp as a light source that makes me feel good throughout the day.
I really like the idea of offices having ‘bright light spaces’ – hot desks with Lumie Brightsparks that people can use when it’s appropriate for them, with a divider so others don't get distracted.
I wondered if this would cause any problems, but I checked with Lumie and they said there’s no disadvantages to doing this, but there are no additional benefits once the ideal treatment time has been reached.
This ideal treatment time can be different for different people, based on things like naturally occurring melatonin levels and sensitivity to light. It’s probably best to experiment and make sure you’re hitting your ideal treatment time: beyond that, do what you will.
How I felt after using the Brightspark
It’s not like doing exercise and feeling pumped for a few hours afterwards: it’s a more subtle feeling, like you’re more aligned with what’s happening in the world around you rather than having a ‘high.’
Some days, I hit the evening feeling kind of antsy, with restless energy and fast-paced thoughts. After using the Brightspark for a week, I felt like I’d gone over the ‘hump’ of the day and was ‘coming down the other side’ by the evening, so this was a big benefit for me. It feels more like you’ve had a full day, like a natural cycle is complete.
For the first week I used the Brightspark for about 2-3 hours a day and on the final day, my fiancée asked if she could use it. I had a surge of wanting to say no, because I had become used to enjoying the benefits of how it made me feel (I’m not mean though, I reluctantly handed it over… then asked for it back a bit later…).
There’s a law of diminishing returns going on, but it’s more of a levelling off than a reduction in benefit. At first the Brightspark is very novel and you get the novelty wellbeing boost as well as the general boost from bright light therapy.
After a while you get used to it and it becomes a subtle presence in the background. You still feel the same benefit – at least I did – but you don’t really think about the Brightspark. This is a good thing, but there’s a disadvantage. You can forget to turn it on – this was overcome for me by repositioning the unit so I had to move it slightly to start working.
What place should bright light therapy play in your life?
In my anecdotal view, I felt consistently more level using the Brightspark every day. But I really think it should be treated as part of a wellbeing toolkit rather than a total solution to the problem. Anything that can better align your body around natural cycles is a good thing and there are additional changes I’d recommend when using the Brightspark.
Firstly, evidence suggests that for treatment of SAD, exercise was “significantly more effective at alleviating so-called atypical depressive symptoms when combined with bright-light exposure.”
I also found that when I had slept poorly and felt groggy it was harder for the Brightspark to ‘pull me out’ of it and get my brain working. So it’s not going to overcome a poor lifestyle, in fact the healthier I felt, the more benefit I got.
I wrote an article on the disdain society has for sleep: off the back of this article, I started better sleeping habits and this is a good habit to get into alongside using a Brightspark, because then you’re improving your natural cycles in multiple ways.
For example, setting an app on your phone (such as f.lux) to filter out blue light in the hours before bed will help your body produce melatonin to make you sleepy. Likewise, using soft table lamps throughout the evening will help as bright lights will suppress the production of melatonin. Of course this is great when using the Brightspark during the day, not so great in the evening before bed.
Covering LEDs in your bedroom, using blackout blinds and avoiding caffeine past midday can also help improve sleep quality.
The Lumie Brightspark in the workplace
For HR trying to encourage staff to be healthy, happier and more productive, does the Brightspark have worth as a workplace tool?
As we focus more on wellbeing in the workplace, something that helps suppress melatonin and encourage serotonin production has got to be a good thing. But there’s a catch: it’s not really like fresh fruit in the workplace which just sits there quietly until people pick it up. It’s a massive bright light: if everyone had one on, it would be distracting, especially in open plan offices.
Saying that, I really like the idea of offices having ‘bright light spaces’ – hot desks with Lumie Brightsparks that people can use when it’s appropriate for them, with a divider so others don't get distracted. People can dose themselves when they feel they need it, for the appropriate amount of time.
In my anecdotal view, I felt consistently more level using the Brightspark every day. But I really think it should be treated as part of a wellbeing toolkit.
I tended to use it at home before coming into work and when I used it like this I got the best results. But your mileage may vary: I imagine it’s quite a personal thing. Like mindfulness, I just felt I got better results when using the Brightspark in the morning rather than once the day had started. So is providing bright lights for employees to use at home the best bet?
I’m not sure. There are some big obstacles. In the first few weeks it’s no different to building any other habit, and unless you have an obvious place and time to use your Brightspark, it can fall by the wayside. Employees must buy in and understand the benefits, otherwise it will gather dust. Helping them understand the benefits would be best alongside a holistic education strategy on other related aspects of wellbeing, such as improving sleep quality.
If you’re putting together a toolkit to help your body adapt and thrive in the modern world, the Lumie Brightspark is a strong contender. Used on its own, there is benefit, but when combined with a desire to improve overall wellbeing it comes into its own.
For organisations, I’m not sure buying Brightsparks for employees to use at home is going to get buy-in at the moment. What excites me is the thought of cordoned off areas of open plan offices with Brightsparks, standing desks and lots of fresh, air purifying plants for people who want to use the Brightsparks in their own time. This would be attractive in a modern office and very good for wellbeing and I can see employees using them on a daily basis, assuming the benefits are distributed and sold in a decent comms campaign.
Disclosure: a Lumie Brightspark was provided to HRZone for this review. It was returned upon publication.