Bright lights, bright moods

Bears do winter right: They sleep until spring. But for those of us who spend the winter in northern latitudes, where the sun makes only guest appearances, the shortage of light can cause subtle--and not so subtle--mood swings.

About one in five Americans experience what's known as winter doldrums, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Md. These people have trouble getting up in the morning, feel sluggish and mildly depressed all day and have decreased levels of creativity and productivity.

But for the 6 percent of the U.S. adult population whom the NIMH says experiences Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), winter brings on much more than a case of the blues: disabling depression, fatigue, irritability, anxiety, lowered sex drive, loss of interest in socializing, insomnia or increased sleep (up to four hours a day more than usual) and weight gain caused by cravings for sweets and starchy foods. Not surprisingly, SAD is most common in Alaska, where upwards of 40 percent of the population has signs of it, and least common in sunny Florida and California.

But winter depression--both mild and severe--an often be remedied by literally shedding some light on the problem. For mild cases, turning indoor lights on during the day and getting outside for an hour when the sun's at its brightest may be sufficient. Staying physically active and pursuing a winter hobby, like skiing, ice skating or snow hiking, is also helpful.

For full-blown SAD, the primary treatment is to spend time in front of a special light box that gives off illumination up to 40 times brighter than ordinary indoor lighting. It's the brightness, rather than the light's similarity to normal sunlight, that lifts the depression, say researchers at the Depression and Related Affective Disorders Association in Baltimore, Md. And according to NIMH scientists, 75 percent of patients who use light box therapy experience relief from SAD symptoms within two to 14 days. Light therapy is also available in battery operated sun visors worn on the head.

For light therapy to be effective, it must be done daily from October through April. Exposure in the early morning hours works for most people, but some individuals do better with early-evening treatments. Since treatment times vary--as little as 15 minutes or as much as 3 hours a day--light therapy is best done under the supervision of a health professional. Overexposure can lead to insomnia, headaches and feelings of restlessness and irritability. And looking directly at the light can cause eyestrain.

In addition to light therapy, a study from Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland found that 0.125 milligrams (mg.) of melatonin, the hormone commonly used to fight jet lag and insomnia, banished SAD symptoms, although scientists haven't yet determined why. "We do know that serotonin, the brain chemical that controls mood, appetite, sleep, anxiety and relaxation is converted to melatonin in the dark hours," says Ray Sahelian, M.D., author of 5-HTP: Nature's Serotonin Solution (Avery, 1998). "By trial and error, we've found that a low dose of melatonin helps lift SAD."

Sahelian routinely advises his SAD patients to take melatonin in the afternoon and 300 mg. of the antidepressant herb St. John's wort in the morning. "I find that combining the two remedies is the most effective approach," he says. "If the low doses don't work, you can take another St. John's wort tablet in the afternoon, but it's best not to take more melatonin because it can induce drowsiness."

Caveat: Melatonin is generally sold in 0.3, 0.5 or 1 mg. capsules or tablets, but this much higher dose may make you sleepy. Sahelian suggests buying either 0.3 or 0.5 mg. pills, and then dividing them into smaller doses.--RS

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By R.S.

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