Depressed? Some time in the sun may be the cure

February 20, 1994|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

If you feel like pulling the covers over your head, eating candy and avoiding your friends, you may be sick of winter -- or suffering from seasonal affective disorder, says a psychiatrist at Howard County General Hospital.

For the past 13 years, Dr. Alix Rey has been treating patients for the debilitating depression that is triggered by the shortened amount of sunlight that starts in September or October and lasts until April.

"It's different from the winter blues," Dr. Rey said. "It's not something that goes away. It's a real disease brought on by a lack of sunlight."

This year has been especially bad for those who suffer from the condition, local medical experts say.

"It's been one of the most brutal winters I've ever seen," said Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, director of seasonal studies at the National Institute of Mental Health in Rockville. "People can be more sympathetic for SAD sufferers."

The disorder strikes about 10 million people throughout the United States and about 6 percent of Howard County's population, Dr. Rey said. That estimate would put the number of local sufferers at about 12,000.

The disorder is characterized by lethargy, a ravenous appetite -- particularly for sweets and starchy foods -- a short attention span, sadness or anxiety, and withdrawal from friends and family.

"It's a disease," Dr. Rey said. "It is paralyzing. It's more incapacitating than having the holiday blues."

About 25 million Americans are estimated to have a less severe form of seasonal affective disorder, commonly known as the "winter blues."

"They feel blah, draggy -- that's winter blues," said Dr. Rosenthal, who led a research team in the discovery of seasonal affective disorder at the National Institute of Mental Health.

Dr. Rosenthal said he initially noticed SAD symptoms in himself when he moved from his native South Africa to New York more than a decade ago.

"I noticed I slowed down in winter and sped up in the summer," he said.

Dr. Rosenthal said many SAD patients begin to feel depressed when the sunlight decreases during September and October.

"They feel like they are failing at work and friendships," he said. "Sometimes they can despair."

The disorder was particularly devastating for Joan, a 36-year-old Lanham resident who has been receiving treatment from Dr. Rey for 13 years and was part of Dr. Rosenthal's pioneering studies.

stay in bed all day and eat all day," said the Prince George's Community College student, who didn't want her last name used.

About three weeks ago, she got so depressed that she spent about $1,000 during a shopping spree.

"I bought clothes, household things," Joan said.

"I'm a student so I can't afford that kind of money."

But Joan has been feeling better since obtaining a light box, a therapeutic device with powerful fluorescent tubes.

The boxes, which cost about $400, are portable devices that can range in size from 4 feet in length to as small as two desktop dictionaries.

Some light therapy devices also come in the form of a visor or sunglasses.

Light from the devices stimulates the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in regulating the body's biological clock.

"I got hold of one of those light boxes three weeks ago and I feel like a different person," Joan said.

The light boxes, which are 10 to 20 times as bright as an ordinary indoor light, are not harmful because the light is filtered and because patients sit under them for brief periods of time, Dr. Rosenthal said.

Studies have shown that patients who sit under a light box for 30 minutes to two hours a day begin feeling better within days of the treatment.

"That can really do the job," Dr. Rosenthal said.

Dr. Rey, who said he treats about 10 people each year for the disorder, also recommends outdoor activity where patients are exposed to natural sunlight. In addition, he recommends anti-depressants and therapy.

"They should seek professional help," Dr. Rey said. "It's treatable."

Joan advises those who believe they might have seasonal affective disorder to see a psychiatrist and try experimenting with the light boxes.

She also has advice for those who live with someone suffering from the disorder.

"Be patient with people who suffer from it," she said. "Be patient because it's not something that they can control."

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