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Dark days, dark moods

Donna Carlson, Staff Writer

Do you (or someone in your family) have the S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) winter blues? S.A.D. is a type of depression triggered by winter weather that affects more than an estimated half million people each winter between September and April.

For some people, S.A.D. is a seriously disabling illness that prevents them from functioning normally. For others, it is a mild annoyance we call the "winter blues."

When days are shorter and provide less sunlight, your risk of contracting this odd disorder increases significantly with geographic residence. For example, the incidence of S.A.D. in people living in Florida is 1 percent, but the occurrence among those living in northern latitudes, such as Alaska or the New England states, tops the scales at about 10 percent.

S.A.D. is a type of depression that affects more than an estimated half million people each winter


"People should bring more light into their life," says Dr. Norman Rosenthal, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University. He says clinical tests have proven S.A.D. is a biochemical imbalance in the hypothalamus due to the shortening of daylight hours. His list of symptoms include the following: Withdrawal from family and friends, often feeling irresistible cravings for carbohydrates, thus causing weight gain, sleep problems (daytime drowsiness), or a longing for additional sleep, lack of energy, problems concentrating, diminishing sex drive, inability to make decisions, and in some cases, suicidal thoughts.

S.A.D. also shares several symptoms with other forms of depression including lethargy, sadness, hopelessness, anxiety and social withdrawal. Dr. Rosenthal strongly suggests seeing a physician if you think you have symptoms of S.A.D. for positive diagnosis.

A change in sunlight exposure is the key

The good news is S.A.D. symptoms quickly disappear in spring, depending on the intensity of spring sunlight. In fact, light therapy has been proven to be effective in 85 percent of diagnosed cases. Under a physician's care, treatment typically involves a combination of daily light therapy, exercise and medication. Physicians who specialize in depression emphasize exercise and stress management to help lessen the symptoms.

One treatment known to be effective is phototherapy. It involves the use of bright light. Your doctor may recommend exposure to a bright light source for two hours in the morning. Morning treatments seem to work better than evening treatments, although it is not understood why. The effectiveness of the treatment increases with increased light intensity and duration of exposure.

Four to 6 percent of the general population will experience S.A.D. sometime in their life. Women are four times more likely than men to develop S.A.D. The typical onset is in the twenties, though a few people experience the disorder in middle and old age. Symptoms tend to decrease with age. It is now known that susceptibility for S.A.D. appears to be inherited.