Home CommentaryStudent Life A light at the end of the SAD tunnel

A light at the end of the SAD tunnel

by Archives November 10, 2004

Ahhhhh spring! No wait…it’s autumn. That means colder temperatures and less light.

In the natural world, life is programmed to come alive as days get longer and warmer.

On the other hand, life is also programmed to settle in and hibernate as days get shorter and colder. Beavers disappear into winter lodges, flocks of geese fly south for the sun, but humans maintain the same schedule throughout.

It being autumn, the clocks went back last week, so we all get an extra hour in bed.

But also, a result of the change, darkness will now come an hour earlier every evening until April, when we return to Day Light Savings time.

Last week, the sun was setting at approximately 5:45 p.m., which affords opportunity to leave work when it’s still light. But as of Oct. 31, it was dark by about 4:30 p.m.

For most it’s only a minor gripe and the adjustments become second nature within a week.

Perhaps a crackling fire or the warmth of a favorite old coat are all you need to face the winter with good cheer, but for many people, this melancholy transforms to a illness called Seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Symptoms of the season

SAD occurs as the days grow shorter in the fall and winter.

In addition to depression, its symptoms include overeating, lethargy, insomnia, irritability, and aching joints.

Research shows the condition is an adverse reaction to the decreasing amounts of light as the fall and winter progress.

As a child, Lindsay Wells always noticed her moods changed around the time clocks fell back one hour.

When she was fifteen, she recalls not leaving her bedroom for two weeks. “Back then it was called Winter Depression and doctors prescribed some new anti-depressants,” says the 36-year-old Concordia Student.

“Then my parents moved to New Orleans and I felt fine. I never took any notice of it. It was when I returned to Montreal to study that I felt exactly as I did 21 years ago.”

Sensitivity to light

Lindsay Wells’s history with SAD is not uncommon. Many people reported no symptoms after moving to warmer climates with longer sunlight.

Studies have shown that people with SAD feel better after exposure to bright light.

It seems simple enough; In higher latitudes, winter days are shorter, so you get less exposure to sunlight. Replace lost sunlight with bright artificial light, and your mood improves.

But SAD is still a mystery to scientists. Many things, including brain chemicals, ions in the air, and genetics seem to be involved. Researchers agree that people who suffer from SAD have one thing in common: they’re particularly sensitive to light, or the lack of it.

Dr. Alfred Lewy, a SAD researcher at the Oregon Health & Science University, says it’s not only a matter of getting light, but also getting it at the right time. “The most important time to get light is in the morning,” he says.

The turn away from day light savings last week means that our usual wake-ups are now in the dark.

A type of depression

One person in five will experience a depressive episode in his or her life, but only five per cent of the population suffers from full-blown SAD.

Another ten to 20 per cent of the population suffers from at least some SAD symptoms.

SAD differs from other forms of depression (such as unipolar and bipolar depression) beacause its symptoms only manifest themselves seasonally-generally starting in autumn and continuing through the winter months until the clock moves forward.

Unlike other types of depression, however, many SAD studies show those who suffer are consistently depressed only during seasons with diminished daylight.

In particular, studies done at Antarctica research stations show that even individuals who do not strictly fit SAD’s clinical criteria showed increased incidence (10 to 28 per cent) of depressive symptoms during the winter.

Moving the clocks forward is an important psychological marker for the one to two per cent who suffer from SAD, says Stuart Armstrong, of the Brain Sciences Institute at Swinburne University in Melbourne. “They think, now I’m OK. The next few months will be great.”

Treatments available

Those experiencing SAD cannot just wait out the blues until April and hope symptoms will lessen.

Several types of treatment are available for SAD, and research is ongoing to determine the most effective type.

Treatments include counseling and anti-depressants, but the most frequent is the use of light therapy.

In the most common form of light therapy, you sit before a light box of strong fluorescent light- about ten to 20 times brighter than ordinary indoor light- for periods varying from 15 minutes to one hour a day.

It has worked for Wells. “I get out of bed 15 minutes earlier and sit in front of my light,” she says.

“I started doing this in September when my classes began. I do not feel as bad as I did last year at this time and I am able to keep on attending university in Montreal.”

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