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Shorter Days Trigger Depressive Disorder

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Butler Hospital Mood Disorders Specialist Helps Unravel Myths

About Seasonal Affective Disorder

Let's face it, with the exception of avid skiers, most people don't look forward to winter. Cold weather, shorter days and the hassles of snow and ice are enough to get anyone down. But for nearly 10 million Americans who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, the fall and winter bring on much more than petty inconveniences.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a major depressive disorder that has been linked to chemical changes in the brain due to the diminished hours of sunlight.

As the days get shorter, the lack of sunlight can throw off our natural rhythms and sleep patterns due to a drop in levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. For some people, that leads to a mild condition. You may hate winter and not know why or feel a lack of energy. For others, however, it can be a more serious illness.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a phenomenon that has been observed for over 100 years, but it was not until 1984 that it was diagnosed as a distinct disorder. Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder include loss of energy, change in appetite, tendency to oversleep, difficulty concentrating and irritability.

"Seasonal Affective Disorder is a major depressive disorder and can have all the symptoms of major depression," explains Dr. Lawrence Price, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown Medical School and Clinical Director and Director of Research at Butler Hospital. "The difference is that in depression the symptoms are bi-directional. You might want too much sleep, or not enough. You may overeat and gain weight or under eat and loose weight. With Seasonal Affective Disorder it only goes one way, you oversleep and overeat."

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 10 million Americans experience major depressive episodes as a result of Season Affective Disorder. These are marked by depressive periods lasting at least two weeks and recurring at least two years in a row, without other depressive episodes in the spring or summer.

"Many people confuse seasonal blues or holiday blues with Seasonal Affective Disorder," explains Dr. Price. "People with Seasonal Affective Disorder have a serious illness. It is more than just feeling blue after spending a week with your family during the holidays."

Fortunately, Seasonal Affective Disorder is highly treatable. Light boxes that provide bright artificial light are effective in 60-90% of cases. Essentially, they counter the lack of sunlight with a simulated version. "Light boxes tend to be easy for people to use because most of us have at least a couple hours a day when we are sitting still anyway," explains Dr. Price. "The light boxes can be used while you are sitting at a desk at work or watching television."

For those with mild cases, or perhaps the non-clinical symptoms, 30 minutes of daily exercise may be all that is needed. Researchers at Butler Hospital are investigating the impact of exercise on all types of depression and are finding that there appear to be significant benefits. For Seasonal Affective Disorder, these benefits may be even more pronounced.

The occurrence of Seasonal Affective Disorder tends to increase in northern climates where the changes in weather and length of daylight are most pronounced. In Canada, every hospital is required to have the capacity and expertise to help those with the disorder.

Oddly, the one exception to this rule is Iceland. With it's northern location and winters that can mean 20 hours of darkness a day, one would expect the incidence of Seasonal Affective Disorder to be very high, yet it is surprisingly rare. "The theory is that there may be an evolutionary effect that has taken place," says Dr. Price. " Maybe the winters are so harsh there that only the heartiest have survived."

Butler Hospital was founded in 1844, making it the first hospital in Rhode Island and one of the first psychiatric facilities in the country. Butler's 110-acre campus was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who is considered to be the father of American landscape architecture and who also created the landscape of Providence's Roger Williams Park and New York's Central Park. Butler is affiliated with Brown Medical School and has remained at the forefront of new developments in psychiatry. Butler developed the first partial hospital treatment program in the country to be funded by Blue Cross in the 1970's and pioneered short-term-managed care treatment programs in the 1980's. Today, Butler remains committed to the highest quality psychiatric care and continual innovation in improving service delivery and reducing the stigma of mental illness.

© Health News 2003 All Rights Reserved.

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