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Seasonal Affective Disorder: It's Not Just the Winter Blues
By Judith Gusky, LPC

Here we are once again. Facing another winter season in Pittsburgh. Last year hit hard. Predictions for this winter are no better. In truth, Pittsburgh is not known for its sunny days. On average there are 59 days of bright sunshine in Pittsburgh each year. Even if we count "partly sunny" days, the number is still less than half. Why should we care? Because lack of adequate sunshine can be bad for your mental health.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) ... it's not just the winter blues! Think about jet lag and you've got the idea. Only seasonal depression lasts a lot longer. The cold, dark months that begin in late October and last until March can take a toll on energy level, mood, sleep cycles, diet, and productivity.

It's All About Light
All living things function according to the cycles of daylight and darkness (circadian rhythms). We are generally in sync with this environmental time. But as seasons change so does the amount and duration of sunlight each day. Most of us can adapt (without hibernating), but not all of us are so lucky.

Why is this so? Not all experts agree, but there is some consensus that it may have to do with our internal biological clocks. Humans have a "master clock" nestled deep within the brain. It runs on a circadian cycle of roughly 24 hours (how lucky), but not precisely 24 hours (actually 24.5 hours). As winter approaches and days get shorter, some people simply get out of sync with external time.

There are actually many internal, cellular biological clocks that function in step with the "master" clock. As a result, when we get out of sync, it can effect everything from hormone levels to neurochemical functioning, to sleep patterns.

Treating SAD
If you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, you probably know it and dread the winter months. But because SAD remits in the spring as the days get longer, you may forget how bad it was and just suppose that next year will be better.

Unfortunately, without some proactive intervention, it's unlikely that it will resolve on its own.

There are many ways to ease the symptoms of winter depression. It's always best to plan ahead and start early so that depression doesn't set in. Consider diet and exercise. Carbohydrate craving and low energy level go hand-in-hand with SAD. Plan outdoor activities especially on bright sunny winter days. You may want to consult with your doctor about medication or herbal supplements. Counseling is an alternative, even group therapy for SAD sufferers. Light therapy also has proven successful in coaxing the body to stay in sync as environmental conditions change.

Light Therapy Facts
There are a few things you may want to know about light therapy before you give it a try. First of all, tanning is not a substitute for light therapy. The objective of light therapy is to trigger the internal master clock. That is only accessible through the eyes.

Light therapy fixtures come in all sizes and shapes. Be sure to read manufacturer's specifications. The product must emit at least 10,000 lux (light units) and filter out dangerous ultraviolet light (UV).

Keep your eyes open when using a light therapy product, but don't stare into the light. Check for proper angle and distance. For best results light therapy should be done in the morning, consistently at the same time each day. Fifteen to thirty minutes a day is often more than adequate (while you are having your coffee or checking your email).

Be sure to consult with your doctor or therapist. If you have certain eye or skin conditions your medical doctor can advise you about possible aggravation of conditions or side effects. Some insurances cover the cost of light therapy fixtures. Check first before you buy.

For more information, call Pittsburgh Integrative Mental Health at (412) 687-1234 or visit www.pimhservices.com.

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