Treatments for the Winter Blues

Melinda Beck discusses a topic of keen interest to me, living as I do in The Big Potato1, where the sun sets around 4:40 pm.2

Fading Blues, Winter Light

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, affects an estimated 6% of Americans, causing depression, lethargy, irritability and a desire to avoid social situations. It can also create an urge to overeat, particularly carbohydrates. As many as 15% of people in the U.S. may have a milder version that includes only some of these symptoms. The incidence rises along with the distance from the equator: Roughly 8% of Canadians, 10% of Britons and as many as 20% of Scandinavians suffer from SAD this time of year.

Light therapy, using beams many times more intense than normal light, is the most common treatment. But a host of new therapies—from simulating dawn in your bedroom and changing your thoughts through cognitive-behavioral therapy to taking mega doses of vitamin D—are having success in some patients.

Despite decades of study, experts still aren’t sure exactly what causes SAD, which is officially recognized as a form of major depression that remits in spring and summer. The seasonal and geographic patterns provide strong clues that it’s related to the diminishing daylight in the fall and winter. One theory suggests that the reduced light disrupts peoples’ circadian rhythms, the 24-hour biological clock that governs waking, sleeping and many other body functions. Another theory holds that the darkness wreaks havoc with neurotransmitters—brain chemicals that affect mood. Some experts believe the reduced sun exacerbates vitamin D deficiencies. It may also be that SAD has several different causes.

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We bought a goLite Blue last year (Feb 2008)

“Philips goLITE BLU Light Therapy Device” (Philips)

but there are cautions now being issued about degenerative eye problems. Yikes. Don’t know if the cautions are scary enough to get rid of the thing (seemed to help a lot last year), but perhaps I’ll have to curtail the device’s usage a bit.

A controversy is brewing over blue light, which some other experts believe can reset circadian clocks more efficiently than white light. Last year, Philips Electronics NV introduced portable models, the goLITE BLU, which uses shortwave blue light ($199), and the briteLITE, which uses white light with added blue spectrum ($230). A study of 18 moderately depressed patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, supported in part by the manufacturer, found that both types of lights used for 45 minutes a day for three weeks lifted depression in 82% of subjects. The study was published in September in a Scandinavian journal.

But some ophthalmologists worry that exposure to blue light could damage retinas and exacerbate age-related macular degeneration. Philips says the goLITE BLU is safe when used according to instructions, but anyone with eye disease should consult an ophthalmologist before using it.

Side effects to light therapy are usually minimal. Some users get headaches or mild nausea initially, and a few feel restless or have trouble sleeping. But the main downside is the time and daily diligence required.

so now what? I’ll have to look into the other treatments suggested by Ms. Beck: Dawn Simulation, Negative Air Ions, Vitamin D, Exercise outdoors, and others. Outdoors exercise is most likely to happen, but when the temperatures drop, we tend to stay inside more than we should. I’ll have to make a concerted effort to go on sub-zero photostrolls this year. Though, I don’t know what happens when the sun is hidden behind grey skies for weeks on end…

Golden Splashed Ice

  1. Chicago, duh []
  2. lovely grammatical construction, huh? Whatever, too pressed for time to write well []

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