SAD, the Discontent of Our Winter How to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder
By: John Shepler
Sadness. It's a dark, gloomy sea of gray this winter's dayagain.
And you're wondering why you're too depressed to sing the blues?
Perhaps it's the end of the holiday season. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah,
Christmas, New Year's. All gone but the bills. Yet, it seems
like we've been off our energy peaks for months. Oh, it's true.
There really is something to the winter doldrums. But surprisingly
it has little to do with the cold, the dampness, the end of the
festivities, or even that eye-popping credit card bill. It has
everything to do with solar energy. If someone tells you to "lighten
up" in the midst of the gloom, it's probably good advice.
The SAD Truth of the Matter
and writers have clued us into the idea that something is different
and downcast about the late fall and wintertime. The trees are
barren, the landscape is uniformly drab, the clouds are thick
and the air chills you to the bone. What they may have glossed
over is the diminishing light and how dramatically that can affect
the way people feel, regardless of whether it is hot or cold
or what the foliage is doing.
A South African doctor, Norman E. Rosenthal, started making
the connection between moods and the seasons in the mid 1970's
and even considered writing a novel that would emphasize the
changing moods of his character as the seasons transitioned.
But when he moved to New York in 1979, he really got a shock.
The shortness of the winter days compared to those in South Africa
had a profound effect on his energy levels, which didn't abate
until spring. Dr. Rosenthal took a research fellowship at the
National Institute of Mental Health to study how brain chemistry
varied with moods. The research was showing that bright light
affected the chemistry of the brain, particularly the secretion
of melatonin at night. Changing brain chemistry translated into
physical symptoms that affected mood, appetite, ability to sleep,
and even sociability.
Dr. Rosenthal and his colleagues experimented with exposing
patients who complained of having the "winter blues"
to bright lights from boxes that they made with full-spectrum
fluorescent bulbs. These look the same as the fluorescent tubes
you may have in your home or office, but they are designed to
emit more of the electromagnetic spectrum to mimic the color
of natural sunlight in the spring and summer. Amazingly, just
sitting in front of one of these light boxes for as little as
20 minutes a day restored the pep and feelings of well being
that people associated with how they felt in the middle of summer.
It mattered not if the real season was dark and cloudy or that
temperatures were well below freezing. The duration and intensity
of exposure to bright light were the key variables to how their
effects of dimming light and falling moods as summer turns to
fall and winter are called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.
It's an appropriate label. With less light we really can feel
sad. Our bodies react in other ways too. If you are suffering
from SAD, you may feel lethargic, have difficulty concentrating,
have a hard time waking up in the morning or sleeping through
the night, feel irritable and have little desire to socialize,
and you may crave sweets and carbohydrates. The cravings are
thought to be caused by lower than normal levels of another brain
chemical, the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Who gets SAD? In northern latitudes as many as one in five
of us may suffer. Four to six percent of the entire population
may get winter depression, another term for SAD. Women are four
times as likely as men are to experience the symptoms are. Children
and teens have much less of a problem than adults. Because SAD
is related to the amount of light we get from the sun each day,
winter depression is much more common as you go north. Interestingly,
people living in Iceland have less of a problem with SAD, although
this may be do to less dramatic seasonal changes or a population
that has adjusted. Up to 60% of the rest of us will at least
experience a mild form of the "winter blues" due to
dramatically less light than in summer.
Let the Artificial Sun Shine In Fortunately, the antidote to SAD is as simple as seeing the
light. What we need is a substitute for good 'ole Sol until the
days become longer and sunlight more intense. Simple light boxes
will do the trick, but they have to be bright. In fact, the treatment
is called Bright Light Therapy. How about turning on an extra
lamp? Well it can't hurt, but it probably won't help much with
SAD symptoms. What we think of as bright indoor lighting is woefully
dim compared to even an overcast day outdoors. Light intensity
is measured in units called "lux." A single bedside
lamp generates 100 lux and a well-lit office is in the range
of 500 to 1,000 lux. By contrast, a cloudy mid-day in Alaska
in winters measures 10,000 lux. This is also about what you'd
receive in most areas about a half-hour after sunrise on a clear
day. A sunny day at the beach? That amount of light corresponds
to as much as 100,000 lux. No wonder you need sunglasses.
To counteract the effects of SAD, experiments have found that
you need exposure to a light source generating from 2,500 to
10,000 lux. You'll need to spend 30 minutes to 2 hours in this
environment; 30 minutes a day with a 10,000-lux light box about
3 feet from where you are sitting. Dr. Rosenthal used a light
box consisting of a metal case 2 ft by 4 ft, with 6 full-spectrum
fluorescent tubes. A shiny metal reflector was located behind
the tubes to increase the amount of light projected into the
room. A plastic diffusing screen was placed in front of the tubes
to spread out the light and make it look like an even glow. You
can make a box like this or buy one for $250 to $500.
How complicated is the treatment? Simply sit within a few
feet of the light box, perhaps reading a book, for maybe a half-hour
every day, preferably first thing in the morning. You don't have
to stare at the light. It just has to be aimed toward you. Incredibly,
the researchers found that people's moods began improving even
a few days into the therapy. Some people needed more time with
the light than others, and the amount of extra light needed varied
with the time of year, as you might expect.
You can read more about Dr. Rosenthal's experience with SAD
and light therapy in his book, "Seasons of the Mind."
The links below may also prove valuable. If you feel you've got
the winter blues, like most of us where the snow falls, you just
might want to consider trying a light box or, yes, you have my
permission to print this article and take it to your boss as
justification to relocate you to Hawaii ASAP.
Please Note: I'm a writer not a doctor, so take
this as interesting information and not medical advice. If you
are feeling severely depressed, there may be something more serious
going on and you should, of course, consult your physician.
Winter Blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder: What It Is and
how to Overcome It by Norman E. Rosenthal. Updated and expanded
with the very latest information, this guide is a veritable survival
kit for anyone who suffers from the winter blues. The book includes
a self-test to help you evaluate your own level of SAD; revised
chapters on antidepressant medications, light therapy, St. John's
wort, and a helpful nutritional regimen; step-by-step guidance
on coping with SAD all year round; resources for SAD sufferers;
and much more.
Seasons of the Mind by: Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D. The
definitive work on Seasonal Affective Disorder, by the leasing
researcher and worldwide authority on the subject. This book
is copyright 1990, and not currently in print.