Sunshine For SAD Sufferers
As winter approaches and the days get shorter, millions of people once again develop the sadness and loss of energy that is characteristic of seasonal affective disorder. Find out what's behind this mysterious condition and what can be done about it.
Symptoms and Causes continued...
"My guess is that three times as many women suffer from SAD as men,"
says Dan Oren, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University
School of Medicine and a researcher with the Department of Veteran Affairs.
"We don't know why SAD is more prevalent among women, but it's a good guess
that hormones are partly responsible."
The exact cause of seasonal affective disorder is not yet understood, but
the role of the neurotransmitter serotonin is one of the "most
promising" areas of research, according to Rosenthal. The body uses
serotonin in manufacturing melatonin, the chemical that makes us sleepy.
Concentrations of serotonin drop to their lowest levels during the winter and
rise to their highest levels in summer and fall.
Researchers also believe there may be genetic factors, for seasonal
affective disorder has been observed to run in families.
Warding Off Winter Blues
Although the causes of seasonal affective disorder are not clearly
understood, the cure is fairly straightforward: more light during the winter
months. In severe cases, people with seasonal affective disorder may also
benefit from antidepressant medications, says Mark Levy, MD, chairman of the
San Francisco Foundation for Psychoanalysis.
For those with mild cases, 30 minutes of exercise in the morning sun may be
all that is needed to keep the winter blues at bay, says Levy. People with more
severe symptoms should consult a physician, preferably one who's experienced in
treating seasonal affective disorder.
"If somebody has been clinically depressed for a couple of weeks, he or
she won't have the ability to go outside and exercise," says Levy. "And
if they think they should be able to and they can't, they'll only feel
Light boxes -- devices that provide bright artificial light -- are
frequently prescribed for people with seasonal affective disorder. Patients
spend anywhere from half an hour (preferably first thing in the morning) to two
or three hours daily soaking in the artificial rays. According to researchers
in Canada -- where every university hospital has a seasonal affective disorder
clinic -- light therapy is effective in 60% to 90% of cases, and patients
experience measurable improvement within a week.