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Depression Health Center

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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 worse."

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.

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Reviewed on November 06, 2003

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