If you’re the kind of person who feels the winter blues more than most, you could be experiencing the effects of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This recognized medical problem affects up to 10% of the population in the Northern hemisphere, and the list of symptoms include sleep problems, lethargy, loss of libido, depression, and over-eating.
To some extent, SAD is a normal reaction to the shorter, darker winter days — even animals are affected by the change in seasons. However, for around 2% of the population, SAD can be a debilitating, even chronic, condition, affecting physical and mental well being and putting strain on your relationships.
Healing with Light
One of the best ways to treat SAD, without resorting to medication, is with light therapy. This essentially means exposing yourself to a special, controlled source of bright light. The treatment is simple, non-invasive, and it has a high success rate in alleviating SAD symptoms.
Light therapy is also effective at helping people with sleep problems. Because daylight is a main zeitgeber (environmental cues that keep our body clocks in sync), light therapy can help with a range of problems from jet lag, late chronotype (night owl) tendencies, and age-related sleep issues.
What is Lumie?
Lumie, a British company, has been making light therapy products since 1991. The Lumie BodyClock — an alarm which wakes you up with increasing levels of brightness — was the world’s first wake-up light, and it brought light therapy into the mainstream.
Over the years Lumie has worked closely with the scientific community, sporting bodies, and the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) to produce a wide range of light therapy products. All of Lumie’s devices are medically certified and are used in hospitals all over the UK.
Lumie’s latest product is a 2-in-1 device, combining a standalone SAD light with a wake-up alarm that functions as a dawn simulator. The Lumie Zest breaks from the traditional rounded curves of the BodyClock, opting for a more compact, rectangular design. This suits the dual-purpose nature of being an alarm and a SAD light, as the Zest takes up hardly any space, so you’re free to use it almost anywhere you like.
The Lumie Zest
Keeping with the space-saving design, Lumie opts for quality over quantity when it comes to features. This stripped down approach means the Zest doesn’t include many of the frills you’ll find on other Lumie alarms, such as a radio, MP3 players, or choice of alarm sounds.
The Zest feels almost minimal in comparison. If Apple were to make a light-therapy product, it would probably look quite similar to the Zest. The front of the unit only features the LCD display and the LED light array. There are two buttons on the top; one activates the “sunrise” function and the other is a snooze button. Four additional recessed buttons at the rear let you delve into the settings of the Zest, and its other available modes. These include the alarm time, final sunrise brightness, sunrise duration (15 or 30 minutes), alarm volume, and display brightness.
In light therapy mode, the Zest can also function as a standalone SAD light. Again, you have full control of the brightness and the length of your light therapy session (from 1 to 99 minutes).
How the Lumie Zest Works
A single lead with a small USB connector powers the Zest. There’s no battery, so you do need to keep it plugged in at all times. However, if you do need to move it the clock, it will continue to keep time for around 30 minutes.
If you plan to use the Zest as a dawn simulator, the idea is to place the device in an upright position, facing toward you. Once you’ve set your desired alarm time, all you have to do is press the sunrise button at the top of the Zest and wait for the “dawn.”
If you’re serious about your sleep, make sure you set the LCD clock display to OFF during the night to avoid an annoying glow.
What is a Lux?
Lux is the standard unit for measuring the amount of visible light. A typical bright, sunny day will measure in at 100,000 lux or more, whereas a typical office will stay around 500 lux. Light therapy has traditionally only used lamps that emit 10,000 lux, which was the minimum that was thought to make a difference to SAD sufferers.
However, recent research has shown that lower intensity lights that feature blue-enriched white light can be as effective as lights with 10 times as much lux. This is because blue light has the special property of limiting the production of melatonin: The hormone we produce at night, which promotes drowsiness. Blue light also acts as a trigger to produce cortisol: A hormone that promotes wakefulness, amongst other responses (which is why it’s a bad idea to use blue-light rich computer screens late at night).
The Lumie Zest is verified to produce around 2,000 lux at a distance of 50 cm, much less than the standard of 10,000 lux for most SAD lamps. However, because the LEDs in the Zest provide extra output in the blue light spectrum, they pack an extra punch in regards to stimulating your internal body clock into wakefulness.
The Lumie Zest in Action
So, how well does the Zest work in practice? Over a period of a couple of weeks in December, I put the Zest through it’s paces, setting the alarm to coincide with the actual sunrise time in London. While I don’t personally suffer from chronic SAD, I do have a late chronotype, meaning that I’m definitely more of an owl than a lark. Because of this, getting up early on dark, cloudy mornings in winter has never been my strong point.
However, with my new artificial dawn simulator, I found that the subtle incremental light output from the Zest (on the 30 minute setting) produced a surprisingly realistic approximation of natural morning light. It was like someone gradually opened the curtains very slowly on a bright, sunny day. The effect was very pleasant — a gentle, but stimulating, way to start the day. I decided not to use the audible alarm to test if the LEDs were sufficient to wake me on their own.
This proved not to be the case — just using the light failed to totally wake me from my slumber. However, in combination with my regular alarm clock, the Zest was brilliant at shaking off the winter morning blues. Interestingly, my partner, who doesn’t share my resistance to early mornings, found that the Zest was very effective at waking her up every morning.
In light therapy mode, the Zest is designed to be used when you’re up and about, whether that be at home in the kitchen or sitting at your office desk. A detachable stand is used to place the Zest at a 45 degree angle to beam the light into your face. Personally, I found this to be less useful, but then again, I don’t really suffer from SAD, so I didn’t feel a huge difference.
Who Is the Zest For?
The Lumie Zest is suitable for anyone who has a hard time getting out of bed on those dark, dreary mornings. It’s also small and portable enough to carry around if you’re traveling, jet-lagged, or need to reset your body clock after crossing a few time zones. The Zest can also be used if you just need a quick light therapy session to give you a boost at breakfast.
Pros and Cons of the Zest
The main selling point of the Zest is it’s versatility, as it is a wake-up light and SAD lamp rolled into one. Its understated design equally suits the bedroom or workspace. The product feels solid too, demonstrating the decades of experience that Lumie has in making these types of devices.
On the downside, the power cord included with the Zest is a bit short, and it would be nice if there was a battery to extend the life of the clock when the unit is unplugged. I also found the rear buttons a bit fiddly at times, but once you’ve set the device up, this isn’t really an issue.
Final Thoughts About the Zest
So, would I personally buy a Lumie Zest? If you asked me a couple of years ago, I would have strongly considered making a purchase. However, as I’m now the proud owner of the world’s most effective wake-up alarm — a young toddler who likes to jump on my head every morning — I no longer find getting out of bed a struggle. Nonetheless, if you don’t have this built-in alarm clock, I would strongly recommend opting for the Zest.
There are other competing devices out there — Philips makes a range of sunrise alarm clocks, too — but the Lumie Zest is, as far as I know, the only portable combination wake up/ SAD light currently on the market. The price is currently around £125 (or $150), and if you buy direct from Lumie, you get a 30-day home trial, after which, if you’re not satisfied, you can get a refund.