Solutions for those with wintertime blues

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Jim Miller

If you get depressed in the winter but feel much better in spring and summer, you may have “seasonal affective disorder” (or SAD), a wintertime depression that affects more than 36 million Americans.

While experts aren’t exactly sure what causes SAD, most think it’s attributed to reduced daylight. Less daylight in the winter months can upset sleep-wake cycles and other circadian rhythms. And it may cause problems with a brain chemical called serotonin that affects mood.

If you think you may have SAD, a trip to a doctor’s office is the best way to diagnose it, or you can take a SAD “self-diagnostic” test at the website of the Center for Environmental Therapeutics (www.cet.org).

In the meantime, here are some treatments and remedies that can help.

Light therapy: The most effective treatment for SAD is sitting in front of a specialized light therapy box for 15 to 20 minutes a day. Light therapy mimics outdoor light to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood.

It’s most effective when timed to fit a person’s individual circadian rhythm (body clock), which varies widely from person to person. Are you a night owl or a morning lark? You can calculate your proper time for doing light therapy by taking the circadian rhythm test at www.cet.org.  

The best light boxes provide 10,000 lux of illumination — many times stronger than typical indoor light — and have a diffuser screen that filters out ultraviolet rays and projects downward toward the eyes.

With prices ranging from around $150 to $200, you can find a nice variety of light therapy boxes at sites like day-lights.com (1-800-387-0896), www.lighttherapy.philips.com (1-866-832-4361), www.verilux.com (1-800-454-4408), and www.lighttherapyproducts.com (1-800-486-6723).

Dawn simulation: This is a newer form of light therapy that gradually turns the light on in your bedroom, creating a slow transition from darkness to dawn in the room while it’s still dark outside.

Studies have found that dawn simulation can ease depression and help people wake up with more energy. These products typically run between $100 and $200 and are sold through many of the previously listed sites that sell light therapy boxes.  

Antidepressants: If light therapy doesn’t alleviate your SAD symptoms, antidepressants such as Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft may help. Talk to your doctor about these options.

Negative ion therapy: Negative ion generators help freshen and purify the air and, according to Columbia University, help relieve depression and SAD. Several models of ion generators are on the market.

Some, designed to be used for 30 to 60 minutes daily, include a wrist strap that channels the ions directly to the body to be absorbed through the skin. Other models work overnight, filling the entire room with negative ions. Sites like cet.org and negativeiongenerators.com (1-866-466-4937) sell them for between $125 and $165.

Cognitive behavioral therapy: Even though SAD is considered to be a biological problem, identifying and changing thoughts and behavior can help alleviate symptoms, too. To find a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, check with the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (abct.org) or the Academy of Cognitive Therapy (academyofct.org), both of which offer directories on their websites.

Exercise: Moderate exercise such as walking, riding a stationary bike, or swimming can also help alleviate SAD symptoms.

Vitamin D: This sunshine vitamin, that our bodies make when the sun’s rays hit our skin, typically declines during the winter months. Vitamin D deficiencies have been linked to a wide variety of illnesses, including depression. Your doctor can determine if you’re deficient with a simple blood test.

While some foods contain vitamin D — fatty fish, cod liver oil and fortified products like breakfast cereals, milk and orange juices – the most efficient way to get what you need in the winter is probably with supplements. The recommended daily allowance for those 70 and older is 800 IU.

Many supplements come in higher doses, but don’t overdo it. The very upper limit of safety is considered to be 4,000 IUs of vitamin D-3 daily from all sources. Consult your doctor before taking this or any other supplements.

Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of The Savvy Senior book. You may send him questions at:: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org.