Happier News for Those Suffering From SAD

Light therapy used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

It's a trick, of course. Switching the clocks ahead one hour for Daylight Saving Time doesn't actually create any extra sunlight at all. Still, the longer days that come with spring are genuinely welcomed by all, especially those emotionally affected by the darkness of the winter season, as Jeff Glor reports in our Cover Story:

With spring right around the corner, it's time to say goodbye to the bitter temperatures, the blowing snow. Time to slough off those bundled layers and, for millions of us, time to get back to "normal" after a season of "sad."

SAD, as in Seasonal Affective Disorder.

"There were times when I couldn't hardly get out of bed, said Stephen Ravenscraft, who says it's like living life in a cloud.

"I ended up feeling very isolated, I felt uninterested in things that interested me prior to severe depression."

Lynne Spevack has grappled with it for years.

"I'd feel sluggish mentally, also, kind of like there were cobwebs or cotton in my brain," she told Glor. "Feeling that life is kind of bleak. If you know the saying about rose colored glasses? When you have SAD, it feels like you're wearing gray glasses, and just everything feels kind of gray."

What distinguishes SAD from other kinds of depressions is its link to the calendar. Spevack said every year at the same time the SAD settles in.

"Every fall, probably around, I'd say, November for me, the slump would start," she said. "And it would lift in the spring. And that was like clockwork."

Ravenscraft and Spevack are among an estimated 10 million Americans who grapple with full-blown SAD.

Millions more suffer with less severe symptoms. And if you're one of those skeptics who think SAD is one of those made-for-TV ailments.

Dr. Michael Terman begs to differ, calling it "serious business."

"It's as severe as any depression," he said.

But wait a minute: Doesn't everybody feel a little "down" on a gray day?

Dr. Terman specializes in SAD research at Columbia University Medical Center in New York.

"It seems like there are people who say, 'Come on, SAD?' To the people who say this is not real, your response is what?" Glor asked.

"There's nothing to joke about, depression," Dr. Terman said. "It's a miserable experience for these people for up to five months each year."

And what makes SAD unique is not only when it strikes, but also where.

Doctors find that SAD is about two-and-a-half times more common in Pennsylvania and north than it is in, say, Texas or Florida.

That might not be surprising. After all, in Miami winter feels an awful lot like summer. But researchers say it's not really the temperature that keeps SAD at bay, it's the light. Winter days in the south are longer than they are in the north.

Whatever its causes, treatment for SAD may be as close as the nearest door.

"I feel better the minute I step outdoors," said Spevack. "It really is that fast for me. It's different for different people."

Since SAD seems to be linked to our exposure to light, doctors urge patients to get outside during the day.

Which is why Lynne Spevack calls the winter walking tours she gives at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden "chasing away the winter blues."

And then there are contraptions like these . . .

Spevack says a light box has made "a tremendous difference," in her life. "It maintains my good mood each day."

Doctors believe that's because bright light inhibits the brain's production of the hormone melatonin, which makes us sleepy.

Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a pioneer in SAD research, was one of the first scientists to understand this linkage between SAD and light.

"It stimulates the retinas of the eyes to send signals back to the brain," Dr. Rosenthal said.

No surprise, then, that light therapy has become the most common treatment for symptoms of SAD, and Dr. Terman said its effects are almost immediate. He said the best-case scenario of turning around a severe case is three days.

Dr. Rosenthal said there's reason to believe other brain chemicals are light sensitive, too, including serotonin, noreprinephrine and dopamine - "all three of which, incidentally, are also affected by antidepressants," he said.

What about antidepressants? Doctors believe they can work as well, as can psychotherapy.

Ravenscraft says that, for him, a combination of antidepressant drugs works best of all.

"I was saying to my wife, you know, this is really different. This year I'm not even bucking up and struggling through or pushing through, determined. I'm just living life," he said.

Still more treatments are on the horizon, including a variation of light therapy dubbed "simulated dawn," where a computer slowly turns on a bedroom light in early morning as you sleep.

And maybe polar bears are on to something.

No, not those polar bears . . . those fans of frigid waters may not be so crazy after all. Because crashing waves, thunderstorms and waterfalls all create negative ions as air molecules are torn apart.
And while scientists don't understand why, they do know that negative ions seem to have a positive effect.

"There are physiological effects to high concentrations of negative ions," said Dr. Terman. He's now
experimenting with using the ions as a cutting-edge treatment for SAD.

"In controlled, clinical trials people who receive high levels of output show an antidepressant effect," he said.

For years, it was just "something about the winter" . . . something only the spring could cure.

Today, victims of SAD no longer have to suffer in the dark.

For more info:
Center for Environmental Therapeutics
Columbia University Medical Center, Dept. of Psychiatry
Brooklyn Botanic Garden