Dawn Simulation for Sleep Regulation and Depression

Dawn Simulation
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Dawn simulation involves the use of a device with electronic controls and shielded incandescent or halogen lamps to mimic the natural gradual increase in light that occurs at sunrise.

Why Is a Dawn Simulator Used?

One obvious application for a dawn simulator is to use it as a sort of alarm clock, making it easier for people to wake up during the winter months when it's still dark outside in the early morning. Dawn simulators can also be used to regulate a person's sleep patterns if they have become out of sync, perhaps due to jet lag. There is also some evidence that they may produce an antidepressant effect for those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as Major Depressive Disorder With a Seasonal Pattern in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

How It Works

Within the brain, there is a small structure called the hypothalamus which directs many automatic processes in our bodies, such as sleep, blood pressure, and body temperature. Each of us has a master clock located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus. When light enters the eye, even through closed eyelids, it activates this part of the brain, causing the pineal gland to reduce its production of a hormone called melatonin. When the light in our environment reaches sufficient intensity and melatonin production is low enough, we wake up. This is why we often awaken when sunlight begins to stream through the window and why it is easier to sleep later when we block out sunlight. A dawn simulator makes use of these same principles to produce effects similar to a natural sunrise.

The Advantages Over Bright Light Therapy

Although bright light therapy has been more thoroughly researched and remains the best treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder, dawn simulation could offer people several advantages, including:

  • It's used during sleep rather than in waking hours so it is more convenient
  • It requires a lower intensity of light
  • It is more "automatic" and requires less attention in order to use it

How Is a Dawn Simulator Used?

The first step in using a dawn simulator is to select the desired time for the simulated sunrise to occur.  Generally, this would be a time at which sunrise would naturally occur during the spring or summer months. Other variables to consider would be how long you wish to sleep, what the maximum intensity of light should be and how long the gradual brightening should take to occur.

What to Look for When Buying a Dawn Simulator

According to the Center for Environmental Therapeutics, dawn simulators are not currently regulated by the government and many on the market simply do not work as they should. They make the following recommendations for what you should look for in a device:

  • Are the light level and timing adjustable?  You will need to be able to experiment with different settings in order to get the ones that are right for you.  Many will prefer around 300 lux as the maximum intensity, but others may need something lower.
  • Is the color temperature correct?  It should be within the same range as natural sunlight.
  • Does it specify what distance you will need to place the light to receive a  particular lux level?  And is that distance practical for use?  For example, if the device gives the needed output only when placed at 6 inches away from your face, then it will probably be in your way while you sleep.
  • Is it UL approved?
  • Does it filter out harmful UV rays?
  • Has it undergone independent testing to verify its effectiveness?
  • What kind of guarantee and warranty coverage does it come with?
  • How expensive will it be to own and operate, factoring in replacement bulbs, accessories and power usage?
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Article Sources
  • "Circadian Rhythms Face Sheet."  National Institute of General Medical Sciences. National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Last reviewed: November 2012.
  • "Dawn-Dusk Simulation Therapy." Center for Environmental Therapeutics. Center for Environmental Therapeutics.  
  • Hedaya, Robert J. "Light Therapy and Your Mental Health."  Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC. Published: October 27, 2011.  
  • "What to Look for in Dawn Simulators:  A Buying Guide." Center for Environmental Therapeutics. Center for Environmental Therapeutics.