Don’t be S.A.D. - Shedding a little light on a dark disorder

Jan 12, 2006 at 4:12 pm

Sadness will never be trendy and is usually not an acceptable topic for polite conversation. But at one time or another it colors all of our lives in varying shades — sometimes more intense than others. For many people, sadness seems particularly pronounced during the winter. The anecdotal signs are everywhere. In the chill and gloom of January and February, you might observe that your mood and the moods of the people you encounter in a normal day are inversely proportional to the sun.

This week LEO explores the phenomenon of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or S.A.D. We’re not out to write chapter and verse on the issue, nor are we trying to make fun of a serious situation. Here we simply investigate how some Louisvillians see S.A.D. — and try to put a smile on your face in the Cindy Lamb

For many, there are only two representations of winter — 1) wind and ice that drive away the blue skies; and 2) the gray tide of stratus clouds. (And winter dreams are filled with the cumulus clouds of summer.)

But for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, winter changes everything — and we’re not just talking clothing, storm windows and gardens.

The dearth of natural light from December through March, which causes certain mammals to gather nuts or take an extended nap, causes certain humans to go nuts and stay in bed indefinitely.

A most convenient acronym, S.A.D., speaks to a fairly straightforward and convincing fact. That is, that the “dead” or middle of winter, post-solstice, can become a reflective cocoon for some and a spiraling vortex for others. It sets in with insufficient exposure to sunlight, a condition that has been associated with low levels of melatonin and serotonin, abnormalities of cortisol, carbohydrate craving, weight gain and sleep disturbance.

The term Seasonal Affective Disorder was coined in the mid-1980s by Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a Maryland physician who has pioneered the area of “phototherapy.” Thanks to his research and his 1993 book, ”Winter Blues,” Rosenthal has become the uncontested guru of S.A.D. (According to the Carmichael’s and Border’s book stores, there haven’t been too many copies of “Winter Blues” moving in quite some time.) He also is the medical director of a research organization, Capital Clinical Research Associates, which researches psychiatric disorders and other conditions. He has created a revolution in the identification and treatment of seasonal depression, and he’s quite happy to nail S.A.D, which, in simple terms, is basically a body clock gone bad. That is, if yours operates best with light.

The subject of chemistry vs. nature arose in the treatment of the seasonal malady. In Rosenthal’s ground-breaking book, he encourages sufferers to “use all therapies — this could include going south, pharmaceuticals, herbal, ritual, whatever it takes. Proven effective drugs such as Wellbutrin, Zoloft, Prozac all have good results, depending on the person. I also recommend pharmaceuticals or supplements in combination with light therapy; that seems to work for many people.”

Even 11 years after “Winter Blues” was first issued, Rosenthal says his research is not finished.

“Currently we’re hoping to see if certain medications can be used early enough in the winter to forestall the disorder,” he said. “Also what role genetics play in S.A.D.”

I asked him what states seem to have the most cases of the disorder. “The further north you go, the more S.A.D. you’re going to get,” he noted. “We did a study at four latitudes; New Hampshire resulted in 9 percent and Florida 1.5 percent, if that gives you a basic example.”

Good Lux

The chief factor in S.A.D. is the brightness of light, which can be measured in a term known as “lux.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines lux as a unit of illumination equal to the direct illumination on a surface that is everywhere one meter from a uniform point source of one candle intensity or equal to one lumen per square meter.)

During winter days, most people tend to stay indoors, either where they are at work or school. Many even miss out on dawn or dusk illumination, which is comparable to a well-lit room, because they leave home for school or work in the dark and return after nightfall.

With S.A.D — as with every diagnosis and discovery, real or imagined — there comes the wave of products. Light Therapy (not to be confused with therapy lite) is to be taken seriously. And at close range. For individuals plagued by the symptoms of S.A.D., there is a galaxy of retail assistance — in stores and on Web sites.

Just slap LIGHT THERAPY or S.A.D. into a search engine and the industry is in your face. Light boxes, clocks, gadgets for home and office or gear for the body — all built to trick the psyche and its rogue band of neural receptors, into a positive state. Names such as Apollo, Northern Lights, Davita and the Indoor Sun Shoppe are only the tip of the spectrum.

On the Light Therapy Products site I find the Dawn Simulator. Although it sounds a bit like a female sci-fi character, it’s an invention tested at the University of Washington in Seattle — and trust me, they know dark and rainy.

Over the subsequent six weeks the subjects were blindly rated by a psychiatrist using the Structured Interview Guide for the Hamilton Depression Rating-Seasonal Affective Disorder Version (SIGH-SAD). (Can’t beat these acronyms or their combination.) They noted a 50 percent improvement over symptoms.

And for the poker enthusiast? Why, it’s the Light Visor!

Deluxe Visor with built-in 1.5 hour battery pack Battery re-charger is U.S. power supply 3 year warranty Weight: 8 oz. for head unit Adjustable light level from 500-3000 lux. 12 light-emitting diodes, white light, non-UV.

Don’t forget to wake up and smell the Vitamin D … it’s the Daymaker® Virtual Sunlight Alarm!

Wake up the way nature intended, gradually with full spectrum virtual sunlight. Just like a sunrise, Daymaker® lights progressively from twilight to full light.

In Louisville, several medical and mental health professionals loan light boxes to patients, and Rueff Lighting sees a fair number of S.A.D. customers as well as a few doctors who borrow the company’s light therapy products, both the off-the-rack variety and Rueff’s own in-house constructed “light box.” The tabletop lamps offer the required 10,000 lux for any lackluster home or office, for anywhere between $185 and $285.

So why not go to Wal-Mart and get a big-ass light bulb and call it a day for 10 bucks? “It’s the full spectrum of light plus brightness,” said Rueff sales staffer Ed Rager, recommending that you don’t stare directly into it. “You wouldn’t do that with the sun.”

Rager suggests inquiring customers bask in the light for around a half-hour to 45 minutes, depending on the severity of the depression.

Since Rueff moves more chandeliers and lamps than light therapy boxes, Rager isn’t surprised the throngs aren’t beating down the door for the S.A.D. products. “Most people (who may have S.A.D.) aren’t even aware they have it,” he said.

In a lighter moment, he risks sinking the wave of retail success by noting, “Nothing is better than getting outside, taking a walk. And if the sun’s out at the time, well you just can’t beat it.”

And if all else fails?

“There’s always Florida.”

Contact the writer at [email protected]