Got Winter Blues? Lighten Up!
Science Zeroes In On SAD

By Celeste McCall

Snowflakes drifting on the window pane? Jack Frost nipping at your nose as you walk through a winter wonderland? Bah, humbug. Get me out of this dark, dreary pit and take me to Jamaica or West Palm Beach, Fla.
It's that time of year.
If you feel depressed because it's pitch-dark outside when you leave work, if you catch yourself snacking and gaining weight, if you feel blue for no apparent reason, you are not alone.
According to Dr. Dan A. Oren of the Clinical Psychobiology Branch of the National Institutes of Health, about 5 percent of Washington-area residents suffer from what scientists call seasonal affective disorder - SAD. Another 10 percent get a milder form of SAD - plain old winter blahs.
SAD symptoms include difficulty enjoying life, increased appetite with accompanying weight gain, loss of energy despite increased sleep, desire to avoid people, decreased sex drive and difficulty in concentration. Extreme cases might experience suicidal thoughts.
According to studies conducted by NIH Drs. Norman E. Rosenthal and Thomas A. Wehr, pioneers in SAD research, about 83 percent of SAD patients are women. The illness is apt to show up when people are 30 or older.
Not surprisingly, the farther north you live - where the days are shorter - the more likely you are to show SAD symptoms. As Washington lies in a temperate region, roughly 15 percent of the population - the national average - feels some seasonal depression.
Often, the same people who get bummed out in the winter experience euphoria when long, balmy days signal the return of spring. And there's a flip side to SAD. Far less common but just as real is summer seasonal depression. "It seems there's something about the heat and the day length," Dr Oren says. "For them, winter is the best time of year."
SAD is not just in your head; the causes might be biological. According to Dr Oren, sunlight affects the hormone melatonin, which responds to changes in environment, particularly light. Because the body craves light, light itself might be the best treatment.
"We think light acts through the eye and brain centers that regulate depression, mood and appetite," explains Dr. Oren, 34, who does not suffer from SAD but admits to sleeping later in winter than in summer. "Two out of three [SAD patients] report significant improvement [when treated with light]. Sometimes we provide medication if light therapy doesn't work," he says.
Light therapy has certainly helped Neal Owens, 35, a SAD sufferer who invented the SunBox almost a decade ago. His contraption - a large box that shines light into the user's eyes - has been featured on "60 Minutes" and other TV shows.
Mr. Owens launched his SunBox company in 1985, and the Rockville firm now has eight full-time employees. It sells approximately 2,000 briefcase-sized light boxes a year. A super-deluxe model costs as much as $400, but patients may rent them for about $50 a week. (Most insurance companies cover about half the cost of a light box, but users need a doctor's prescription.)
Mr. Owens uses his product 20 minutes a day at the breakfast table as he reads the newspaper and pays bills. "It's like standing in daylight," he says. "The lights have a brightness of 10,000 lux, compared with 250 to 500 lux in a normal home."
Happily married for the past four years to Jane, a lawyer, Mr. Owens is quick to point out that SAD contributed to the failure of his first marriage. "I was a bear in the wintertime:' he says.
Another experimental SAD treatment involves a dawn simulator, a special timer hooked up to a bedside lamp that flips on each morning to imitate a spring day.
The best cure for SAD?
"If circumstances permit, move to a sunnier climate," Dr. Oren says. "The next best treatment is a mid-winter vacation. A less expensive remedy is to adjust your daily schedule to include lunch-time walks. Too cold'? Bundle up," he says. "Every little bit of sunlight helps."

A SAD sufferer uses his SunBox as he reads the newspaper. Some people find the additional light lifts their spirits.

Following are tips for coping with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Some originate with National Institutes of Health and other medical experts, others come from a writer who would prefer to winter in San Diego or Key West, Fla.:
* Try to take a walk at lunch time. If it's cold, bundle up.
* Exercise as much as possible; join a health club if you can. This will keep you from gaining winter flab and you'll feel better.
* Eat high carbohydrate meals; pasta is particularly comforting this time of year. Skip rich, creamy sauces, however .
* Avoid sleeping too much.
* If you really feel down, don't hesitate to get counseling or therapy.
* If you can afford it, plan a midwinter, warm-weather getaway, preferably in late January or February. Not only will the trip itself be beneficial, the anticipation will get you through some long, cold nights.
* Try to concentrate on the fun aspects of winter. Keep a fire going, make gifts, curl up with a good book, learn a new language, cuddle a cat. Make your surroundings cozy.
* If all else fails and you can swing it, move to a sunnier climate.
For more information, write the support group for the National Organization for Seasonal Affective Disorder (NOSAD), PO Box 451, Vienna, Va., 22180. The group holds regular meetings and publishes a newsletter. Membership is $15 a year.
The SunBox Co., which manufacturers light boxes, publishes a quarterly newsletter called SunNet News. For more information, write 19217 Orbit Drive, Gaithersburg, MD 20879; call 301/869-5980.
Or contact the Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms, PO Box 478, Wilsonville, Ore, 97070; call 503 694-2404.

-- Celeste McCall

Email The SunBox Company here: