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Beating Winter's Woes

If your mood is as cold and dark as your landscape, you're in good company. But here's how you can ease that seasonal slump.

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The solution is to get as much sunlight as possible. Light enters the eye, which activates a body clock system that is similar to what controls seasonal breeding and hibernation in animals, says psychiatrist Daniel F. Kripke, MD, who conducted the world's first controlled study of bright light therapy for depression in 1981. This system is connected to the brain's appetite hardwiring, which might explain why you may have more food cravings in winter.

"But getting enough natural sunlight can be difficult now in many parts of the country," says Kripke, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. "When people travel to and come home from work or school, it's dark outside because of the shorter days."

And because it's also cold, they're less likely to venture outdoors and get direct sunlight exposure, which keeps the body clock in sync. "Standing by a window doesn't do it," Kripke tells WebMD. "It's like why you use different camera settings when taking photographs outdoors and indoors. And with the angle and darkened glass of many car windshields, your retina doesn't get enough sunlight while you're driving, even when it's sunny."

Regular indoor lighting also has no effect, no matter how bright it is. To compensate, artificial "sunbox" lights with special fluorescent tubes that mimic the sun's beneficial rays are available and are considered the go-to treatment for those with any level of winter depression. "You might think those with winter doldrums might need less exposure to bright light therapy than people with SAD, but both groups benefit from the same amount," says Terman.

That's about 30 minutes of exposure done first thing in the morning. "Timing is very important, and by administering it first thing in the morning, you keep your body clock on its springtime cycle during the winter, and that's how the depressive symptoms are lifted." These sunboxes can be placed on a desk or table while you eat breakfast or work.

Terman has also done research suggesting that ions in the air -- those invisible particles that can help improve mood -- also affect winter depression. When SAD patients were exposed to high levels of negative ions for 30 minutes, their depression eased after just a few weeks. "Natural concentrations of negative ions are highest at the seashore, by the pounding surf, or right after a spring thunderstorm," he says. "That's why many people report a spontaneous elevation in mood from being at the beach." While commercially sold negative ionizers produce lower levels than what he used in his experiments, they may help some people.

Antidepressants are also beneficial, especially when used in conjunction with light therapy. "But my reading is that antidepressants by themselves are not as effective as light therapy by itself," says Kripke. He notes in a 1998 study that light therapy brought relief to many patients within one week, while antidepressants took about eight weeks.

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