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Feeling down? Maybe you need more light

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GRAND FORKS, N.D.-- Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. If you're feeling blue, it could be that you have SAD.

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Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that strikes some people when the days are short and exposure to natural light is limited. If you routinely feel depressed in the winter but good in the summer, you may have the disorder.

Those who struggle with depression in winter or have the disease or suicide in their family background need to be more vigilant, said Ellen Feldman, a psychiatrist at Altru Health System.

The key to coping is to be aware of your feelings, she said. If you see a pattern of declining mood that coincides with shorter days, she said, it might be best to start treatment early.

Symptoms

Symptoms are sleeping more and feeling sleepy during the day, sad, grumpy, moody and anxious, according to the National Institutes of Health. The disorder can cause a person to eat more and crave carbohydrates, like pasta and bread, and to lose interest in activities that are usually enjoyable.

Persons suffering with SAD may be excessively irritable and have less control over their anger.

For many, symptoms start in the fall, as the span of daylight wanes, and continue through April or May.

Dealing with SAD is all about watching for patterns, said Danielle Conrad, a grief counselor with Altru Health System who helps people with depression.

"If you notice that you can't seem to get it together, or you're not performing well at work, it might be time to seek help," she said. In that case, she recommends seeing your doctor.

Treatment

"This time of year, I write plenty of prescriptions for light-balanced spectrum lights," said Feldman. The lights are available in various forms, including special bulbs and "light boxes" to sit in front of. Expenses for these items are often covered by insurance.

The therapy works by decreasing melatonin levels in the body, diminishing the urge to sleep, she said.

About 30 to 40 minutes in the morning is usually effective, she said. If done later, light therapy could keep you up at night.

It's the next best thing to natural light, Feldman said. In light therapy, ultraviolet rays, which can cause skin cancer, are filtered out.

High-wattage, energy-efficient lights also curb symptoms, patients have reported, Feldman said, but questions remain about possible retina problems. "Anything that tells your brain the world is bright."

Increasing physical activity is also a good way to counteract the effects of SAD, said Conrad. "There's a lot you can do in the winter to get outside and be active."

Other treatments include counseling and antidepressant medications that balance the brain chemicals that affect mood.

Knudson is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. The Herald and the Bemidji Pioneer are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

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