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Seasonal Affective Disorder Hits Hard in Winter

Increased appetite sign of the malady

SATURDAY, Feb. 7, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Winter can indeed be a wonderland. It can also be a nightmare for those who react to a lack of sunlight and the shorter days of the season.

The condition is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and not only can it make you depressed, but it can send you straight to the refrigerator for relief.

In fact, says a University of Texas mood expert, it is the craving for rich foods that separates SAD from other depressive disorders.

"In a regular depression, people tend to lose interest in eating, but with SAD, patients have an incredible craving for food, especially carbohyrdrates and sweets," says Michael Smolensky, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston and a chronobiologist, which is a scientist who studies how biology is related to the rhythms of the day, week and year.

Yet when the spring comes, these people suddenly feel better and often lose the weight they've gained.

SAD is a relatively rare affliction, Smolensky says, affecting under 2 percent of the population. Twice as many women as men suffer from it, and it is most prevalent during a woman's reproductive years.

"It seems to be tied closely to a lack of light, shorter days of full sun and also less light intensity -- during the winter, days are often cloudy and overcast," Smolensky says.

If you've had the seasonal blues, accompanied by food cravings, for two or three winters, you should see a specialist in the disorder, which could be a good internist, a psychiatrist or well-trained sleep specialist.

For mild forms of the disorder, spending more time outside in the sunshine, or exercising outdoors can help. For those whose symptoms are worse, doctors can prescribe sitting daily for anywhere from a half hour to two hours in front of a light box that simulates sunshine at the intensity you need. For people who are comfortable taking medication, SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) such as Wellbutrin or Prozac are often prescribed, Smolensky says.

"When using light therapy for a few days to a week, the symptoms abate, but you have to continue the therapy until springtime," he says, adding that SAD symptoms often disappear on their own as people get older.

While most people with SAD are adults, the disorder can affect children, he adds, so if your child does poorly in school in the fall but his grades pick up in the spring, or if he seems to have appetite cravings only during the winter months, you should be aware he might have SAD.

More information

The National Mental Health Association has an informative fact sheet on SAD.

SOURCE: Michael Smolensky, Ph.D., professor, University of Texas School of Public Health, Houston
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