Shedding dietary light on Seasonal Affective Disorder

Sometimes the symptoms last until April. But even if they subside during the spring and summer, the sadness, fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, increased appetite, and other problems suffered by some 10 million Americans with an illness called Seasonal Affective Disorder will begin again the following autumn if left untreated.

The condition, which goes under the acronym SAD, is actually a type of depression distinguished mainly by sensitivity to changes in light. It afflicts primarily women who live in northerly climates, where a decrease in sunlight occurs during winter months.

Fortunately, an estimated 75 percent of people with SAD can find relief inside of a week or two with light therapy, which involves getting anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours a day of extra exposure to natural sunlight or artificial light five to 20 times brighter than typical indoor lighting. But researchers have never been able to tell beforehand which SAD victims would respond to the treatment. Now a preliminary study from Switzerland suggests that a SAD sufferer's dietary habits may help predict his or her likelihood of feeling relief as well as provide clues about why some individuals develop the condition in the first place.

A sweet link
When scientists at the Psychiatric University Clinic in Basel, Switzerland, scrutinized the dietary habits of a group of people with SAD they found that those who tended to eat more than one portion of a sweet food like chocolate, cake, or ice cream during the second half of the day were the most likely to experience quick, lasting relief from their depression as a result of light therapy. Better still, the people whose moods lifted after light treatment also tended to decrease their "sweet" consumption. The Swiss scientists speculate that in some SAD sufferers, sweets may "trigger" the release of the same mood-altering substances that light seems to trigger. Thus, once light therapy is initiated, the craving for sweets may drop. None of this is to say that people who have a sweet tooth and suffer the winter blahs now and then should self-diagnose and try to treat themselves for SAD. Unlike the normal moodiness and irritation people often feel as a result of difficulty commuting after a heavy snowstorm, or the "cabin fever" experienced during extreme cold spells, SAD is a psychiatric illness that requires medical attention. That is, identifying and treating it should be carried out by a psychiatrist or other qualified therapist.

It is also important to make sure that some of the hallmark symptoms of SAD -- excessive fatigue coupled with increased appetite -- are not due to a medical problem such as low blood sugar or a thyroid disorder. Only after a doctor determines that a person has SAD might the individual's dietary habits help predict whether light therapy will help him or her get over the problem.

Identifying which shade of blues it is
A person who suspects he or someone he knows suffers from SAD should keep in mind that the problem is very treatable, if not with light therapy then with some other antidote such as an antidepressant. The key is diagnosing the condition, which usually involves determining whether the person in question has had at least one major depressive episode in the past, has suffered fall-winter depressions two winters in a row, and has no other major psychiatric problems or lifestyle factors accounting for the change in mood, such as a work-related failure or loss of a loved one. Specific symptoms of SAD include not only sadness and anxiety but also decreased activity, changes in sleep patterns, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, and withdrawal from family or friends. These are followed during the spring and summer by less depressed, nondepressed, or even elevated moods.

For more information about SAD, you can contact The National Organization for SAD, a support group for SAD sufferers and their families, at Box 40133, Washington, DC 20016.

The National Depression and Manic Depression Association, a support group for patients with all types of mood disorders, which can be reached at 730 North Franklin, Suite 501, Chicago, IL 60610 (800-826-3632). The National Institute of Mental Health, Public Inquiries, 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, MD 20857 (301-443-4513). It provides information pertaining to other support groups and facilities.

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