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Winter Blues

Winter begins officially this week and already blustering winds, ominous skies and shrinking hours of daylight are getting many of us down just as the holidays approach. While Old Man Winter may get us all down from time to time, one in 20 Americans is hit hard, suffering from S.A.D - seasonal affective disorder.

"The psychiatric diagnosis of S.A.D. involves a major depressive episode come wintertime and that's a situation where you have a solid period of time of deeply blue mood," says Dr. Michael Terman, director of the Winter Depression Program at the New York Psychiatric Institute at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder include:

  • Persistent sadness
  • Lack of energy
  • Increase in appetite and a craving for carbohydrates
  • Social withdrawal
  • Inability to concentrate
It's a challenge for S.A.D. sufferers because the human body clock instructs people to wake up at sunrise, following the rhythm of daylight. During the winter people often awake in darkness, which can cause the blues and a feeling of tiredness.

The best treatment for S.A.D. is light therapy, exposing patients to extra light during the dark days of winter. In fact, studies indicate light therapy is more effective for treating S.A.D. than anti-depressant drugs.

The New York Psychiatric Institute is in the middle of a five-year trial to test aggressive light therapy in hopes of controlling S.A.D. One therapy is called "bright light therapy." "This apparatus, which sits on your breakfast table or your desk, puts out a level of light similar to about 45 minutes after sunrise if you were to take a walk outdoors without sunglasses," explains Dr. Terman.

Another light, called the "dawn simulator," sheds light over your entire bed. "It's dark outside in January and February and yet you have a springtime sunrise in your bedroom," says Dr. Terman.

Other therapies include a special bed sheet, which recreates the atmospheric conditions at the beach, where sun and surf guarantee a mood boost.

Another doctor doing cutting edge research in light therapy is Dr. Dan Oren of the Yale School of Medicine and the V.A. Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. He is beginning a study of a light band that wraps around the knee and is powered by a portable battery pack. "Blood flows through there and when the blood is stimulated by light, we're thinking it will carry that signal of bright light to the brain," explains Dr. Oren.

While these devices being tested are not yet commercially available, there are light boxes on the market that range in price from $300-$400. A cheaper alternative however might be exercise. An active aerobic workout in mid-winter can have a distinct mood heightening effect.

If you are interested in participating in these clinical trials:

Winter Depression Program at the New York Psychiatric Institute
212-543-5714 (24-hour phone)

Light Band theapy

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