Volume 91, Issue 16

Wednesday, September 24, 1997

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FEATURES
 

Light shines the way on SAD path



By Ciara Rickard
Gazette Staff

Do you get those winter blues?

Well, you're not the only one. Even seasoned Canadians have had it with the ruthless weather – snow, ice and a seemingly never-ending bitter cold. We yearn for longer, brighter days and warm summer nights. There are some people, however, who suffer from the winter blues to a much greater, and colder, degree.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) strikes as many as five per cent of Canadians each year between September and February. People who have SAD are afflicted with clinical depression during the autumn and winter months when there are fewer hours of daylight.

"Some of the symptoms associated with SAD are increased sleeping and fatigue, an increase in appetite and a craving for carbohydrates, lack of decisiveness, poor concentration, depressed mood and flu-like symptoms, irritability, anxiety, low self-esteem and social withdrawal," says community development program coordinator of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Bonnie Williams.

Williams explains it is a difficult illness to diagnose. For someone to be diagnosed with SAD, they must suffer from the depression from autumn to February and have a full remission from the symptoms in spring and summer. It must also occur every year and be unrelated to other physical problems.

The cause of SAD is now known to be linked to the production of seratonin and melatonin, hormones produced in the pineal gland of the brain .

"Early research shows there is a depletion of the production of seratonin when there is less daylight," says executive director of the Mood Disorders Association, Neasa Martin. It is this lack of seratonin which causes a chemical imbalance in the brain and leads to depression.

"Seasonal affective disorder is connected with latitude," Martin explains. "Populations above the 52nd latitude are most likely to suffer from it and the incidence increases further north."

There are several remedies for SAD, some of which patients can take on their own. "If it's a sunny day outside, take advantage of it and open the curtains or go for a walk," explains Bev Devins, National Coordinator of Sleep/ Wake Disorders Canada.

"Try to continue your routine as it is in the summer – exercise and get out as much as possible. The most preferred remedy for SAD is light therapy. Since it is the lack of light which causes the disorder, patients can be provided with artificial light which mimics natural light," she stresses.

Patients can do the light therapy at home using either a 'light box' or a visor worn around the head which shines light on the patient's face.

"Much research has been done in psychiatric hospitals on patients with SAD," says Andrew Michrowski, president of the Planetary Association for Clean Energy. "It has been found that when depressed patients are given light therapy, their symptoms have been alleviated. They don't need lots of light – half an hour a day is enough."

Michrowski says the quality of light used is a key factor in treating patients. It must be full spectrum light, which is what we get from natural light at noon. Light therapy provides this full spectrum and is equivalent to natural light in the shade.

One of the more controversial discoveries is that some ultra-violet light is good as well, Michrowski notes and U.V. light has a very large range – six times the range of the natural spectrum which can be very helpful to patients with SAD.

However, there have also been counter-indications as to the effectiveness of light therapy. "If people are manic depressive and get light therapy, they become manic, so we have to be careful with light therapy," says Michrowski.

Light therapy works for about 80 per cent of people with SAD. The more severe cases may turn to anti-depressants, but for most patients, the light therapy is sufficient, especially in conjunction with the other remedies they can do themselves.

L-tryptofan, a naturally-occurring amino acid is another treatment for SAD, says Martin. "L-tryptofan can increase the production of seratonin, which would help alleviate the symptoms. It used to be sold cheaply in health food stores but now it's only available through pharmaceutical companies at a much higher price."

Seasonal affective disorder is not simply in the heads of those who have The efforts of many researchers have shown that it is actually due to a chemical imbalance. "Within about the last 10 years we have known that SAD is a medical disorder. Because of changes in technology, we have been better able to study the brain," explains Martin.

In Canada, SAD is much more prevalent than for our neighbours to the south. So maybe the best remedy is to make like a goose and fly south for the winter.

Graphic by Colin Dunne


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Copyright The Gazette 1997