SAD Season Light Therapy Proves Effective in Easing Symptoms
Byline: Pohla Smith Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Larry Pederson grew up in the small Canadian city of Medicine Hat and "really suffered" mood-wise in the winters. But things grew even worse when he moved 400 miles north to study pre-medicine at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
"I couldn't function," said Pederson, 52, who now again lives in Medicine Hat, Alberta. "I had five 8 o'clock classes, and I was going to class in the dark and coming home in the dark and sitting in classes all day and I couldn't function. I couldn't absorb information."
It was a 180-degree turnaround for Pederson, who had been a standout high-school student. "Then I get to university and I couldn't function, so after that first year I switched majors. I switched to philosophy because classes started at 10. I had to give up my dream of being a doctor."
He didn't know it, because the mental disorder hadn't yet been identified, but he was suffering from what is now known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. According to psychiatrists, SAD, believed to be triggered by a lack of exposure to light, was designated as a mental disorder in the early 1980s. It has its own set of symptoms and treatments, with the latter including an interesting and effective remedy that involves sitting daily in front of a special lamp box.
After Pederson found relief with the special lamp, he went on to develop his own portable model.
"SAD is a particular pattern of depression," said Dr. Daniel Buysse, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the medical director of the sleep-evaluation center at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh. "The symptoms are very similar to those of any type of major depressive episodes: sadness, loss of interest, inability to experience pleasure."
There also may be "decreased energy, increased need for sleep, sleeping longer hours, tremendous fatigue and increased appetite, irresistible cravings for carbohydrates and sweets," said Dr. Dorothy Sit, assistant professor of psychiatry and researcher at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic.
"The thing that sets SAD apart from other episodes of depression is that SAD more commonly has symptoms of oversleeping vs. insomnia, and the weight change more commonly tends to be weight gain, where weight loss is more typical of depression," Buysse said.
SAD is not to be confused with the "winter blues," also known as the "winter doldrums," which produce SAD-like symptoms. Sufferers of the doldrums are bothered by the symptoms, but remain fully functional, according to the Web site of the Center for Environmental Therapeutics. CET is a nonprofit organization dedicated to education and research on treatments for SAD, nonseasonal depression and circadian-rhythm sleep disorders. It estimates that "about 25 percent of the population at the middle-to-northern latitudes of the United States gets the winter doldrums."
For the most part, Pederson regained his ability to function when he moved in 1980 to Los Angeles, where the sunshine is plentiful. He attended film school at the University of Southern California and then became a script writer. He stayed 14 years and "felt fantastic" -- except when he traveled back to Canada each year to spend the Christmas holidays with his parents.
"After a day or two, I felt like I had the flu," he said of visits home. "I was miserable, cranky, I had no energy. I was sleepy all the time. When I went back to California in January, I felt fine."
There were longer periods of suffering ahead.
In 1989, he worked on a film in Vancouver. The project took a year. "In summer, I was fine; come winter, November, I could not function again." He heard about a psychiatric researcher using lights to work with patients and tried to get in to see him, but there was a waiting list. …