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Seasonal Affective Disorder treatments explored
By Heather Camlot,
February 27, 2008

SAD is more than a case of the winter blues but treatment options shine a light on the darkness of this illness. Find out how light therapy and anti-depressants can help heal this type of depression.

The weather has a way of playing with your emotions -- rainy days may make you gloomy and bright sunshine brings you delight. Winter's cold winds and dark skies can leave you depressed, filling you with the desire to cocoon under the covers and comfort yourself with carbs.

While 15 per cent of the country suffers from the winter blues, another 1 million Canadians are diagnosed with a clinical depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
SAD strikes during autumn and winter, but disappears as the days lengthen and the weather warms.

Common symptoms include:

  • oversleeping
  • extreme fatigue
  • increased appetite with carbohydrate cravings
  • overeating
  • weight gain
Some sufferers may also have suicidal thoughts.

Although no one is certain what causes SAD, research has shown that light (or the lack thereof) has a biological effect on brain chemicals and function.

It could be that SAD sufferers have a problem with their brain's biological clock, which regulates hormones, sleep and mood. Genetics, age and gender may also play a role. Recent studies also suggest that where you live, specifically in northern countries like Canada where winter days are shorter, also has an effect.

Seasonal Affective Disorder treatments
Because low-light months seem to be a key issue for people with SAD, some doctors have championed the use of light therapy over antidepressants. Light therapy involves sitting under a fluorescent light box or lamp that mimics outdoor light for as little as 30 minutes per day.

Other doctors remain skeptical. "Doctors are much more used to prescribing antidepressants than using a treatment like light therapy," explains Dr. Raymond Lam, professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia and director of the Mood Disorders Clinic at UBC Hospital. "Despite the numerous studies showing that light therapy was useful for SAD, a lot of doctors wondered: Well, is it really as good as antidepressants?"

Light therapy vs. antidepressants
For eight weeks in 2005, Lam and colleagues across Canada treated 48 SAD sufferers with light therapy and another 48 with Prozac, a common antidepressant prescribed to treat the disorder. He found that both treatments worked equally well.

"The light treatment was a little faster. After one week it was a little better than Prozac, but Prozac caught up by two weeks and then, through the rest of the study, there was no difference between the two treatments," says Lam.

There were few side effects reported with either treatment. "It's really the first study to show that light treatment is an effective treatment for SAD and that it's as good as our standard treatment, which tends to be medication."

Choosing the right treatment for you
Treatment, then, comes down to individual choice. "Many people don't want to take a medication; they prefer to use a non-pharmacological treatment like light," explains Lam. "But then there are other people who don't want to take the bother of using light every day, even if it's only 30 minutes per day."

Though rare, side effects for light therapy can occur, according to the Mayo Clinic. They include:

  • eyestrain
  • headache
  • agitation
  • nausea
  • insomnia
  • irritability
  • fatigue
  • dry mouth
  • sleep disruptions
You should avoid light therapy if your skin is light sensitive, if you take light-sensitive medications or if you have certain eye conditions. Antidepressants can also produce side effects and come with health precautions. Speak to your doctor to determine if you suffer from SAD and to discover your best course of action.
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