Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder

Depression, Featured Article, Mental Health & Sleep Center
on January 1, 2011
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There’s just something about winter that makes many of us want to stay in our warm beds and sleep until spring returns. But for a relatively small group of people– about 4 to 6 percent of the U.S. population–the winter blues are more serious. When someone suffers from debilitating depression, a severe lack of energy and marked weight gain, and these symptoms set in at the end of fall and disappear in the spring for at least two years in a row, doctors will usually diagnose Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Though only a small portion of the population has clinically diagnosed SAD, another 10 to 20 percent experience a milder form of winter-onset depression. “Many of these people are glum and fatigued, and they may be overeating, but they push themselves through the season, persisting with work and family obligations,” says Dr. Michael Terman, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University and director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia University Medical Center.

If these symptoms sound familiar, it may be time to talk to your doctor about whether what you’re experiencing is truly SAD or a lesser form of the condition. No matter the diagnosis, there are several options for treating seasonal depression.

Tried and True
These two therapies have been around for several decades and have been proven safe and effective:

Bright light therapy: “The best-tested treatment for SAD,” according to Dr. Terman, this therapy involves exposing a person to a 30-minute-or-so interval of bright light with a light box each day. Because daylight hours are shorter during the winter, the theory is that a dose of bright light decreases SAD symptoms. Before you buy a light box, visit the Center for Environmental Therapeutics website for important advice, as not all devices are created equal.

Antidepressants: These medications are usually prescribed after less-invasive methods such as light therapy have been attempted and failed to work, as they often come with a host of unwanted side effects.

New and Promising
The following therapies have both passed controlled clinical trials, but it may be a few more years before they’re considered as effective as bright light therapy for SAD. Plus, many products that attempt to recreate the benefits of these methods may not have been clinically tested; consult a doctor before making a purchase.

Dawn/dusk simulation: This therapy helps manipulate the body’s internal clock, which some studies suggest may affect the same parts of the brain as antidepressant drugs. While you sleep, a light machine gives off gradually changing light mimicking dawn and dusk transitions. This is believed to help because the dawn signal cuts the body’s production of melatonin in the morning hours. Initial results on this therapy show users have an easier time waking up and are more alert and energized throughout the day.

Negative air ionization: Do you feel happier when you’re on a farm or hiking in the woods? It may be because of all the negative air ions around. Negative air ions–molecules of oxygen with an extra electron–are created in nature and are found in high concentrations in non-industrial, sparsely populated areas. Researchers have found these ions positively affect mood: In a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, SAD patients who were treated with high-density negative air ions saw an improvement in their symptoms that was on par with patients who were treated with bright light therapy. Compact and portable, negative air ion generators can be used while you sleep or during the day, and they have no known side effects.