Sunshine for Seasonal Affective Disorder

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For years, Merril suffered through what he calls the “murky mess” of winters in Utah.

As the days grew shorter and clouds hid the sun for days or weeks at a time, Merril found his appetite for carbohydrates increased, his ability to get work done decreased, and his moods grew darker. “I’d fly off the handle at the least provocation,” he says. “By February, my students let me know I was not fit to be around any more.”

Out of desperation he’d head up into the mountains above the clouds and ski in the sunshine. After an hour or two he’d start feeling better. He attributed it to the change of scenery, getting himself out of the classroom and away from the work routine.

But about 15 years ago, Merril discovered the real cure wasn’t the scenery, but the sunshine. His problem? A newly diagnosed condition called antidepressant , says Mark Levy, MD, chairman of the San Francisco Foundation for Psychoanalysis.

For those with mild cases, 30 minutes of exercise in the morning sun may be all that is needed to keep the winter blues at bay, says Levy. People with more severe symptoms should consult a physician, preferably one who’s experienced in treating seasonal affective disorder.

“>exercise,” says Levy. “And if they think they should be able to and they can’t, they’ll only feel worse.”

Light boxes — devices that provide bright artificial light — are frequently prescribed for people with seasonal affective disorder. Patients spend anywhere from half an hour (preferably first thing in the morning) to two or three hours daily soaking in the artificial rays. According to researchers in Canada — where every university hospital has a seasonal affective disorder clinic — light therapy is effective in 60% to 90% of cases, and patients experience measurable improvement within a week.