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SAD: Let the Light In

During the dark days of winter, some people develop signs of depression that are tied to the changing amount of daylight. This type of depression is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

The symptoms of SAD can appear gradually or suddenly, and may be mild or severe, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Symptoms can include fatigue, lack of interest in regular activities, withdrawal from social relationships, a craving for high-carbohydrate foods, and weight gain. Symptoms usually ease or disappear when spring arrives.

Up to 80 percent of people with SAD are women, most of them in their mid-20s and mid-30s. People who work long hours inside buildings with few windows or during long periods of cloudy weather are most prone to develop SAD, the APA says.

If you have mild symptoms of SAD, you may find relief by increased exposure to light, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). You can increase your exposure by taking long walks outdoors, especially on sunny days, or rearranging your home or workspace so that you are near a window during the day. The brighter the light, the more effective it is.  Regular exercise and stress management techniques also may help.

If your symptoms are more severe—they affect your daily life—talk to your health care provider about light therapy, also called phototherapy. This involves the simple procedure of repeated sessions of sitting in front of a very bright light.

Medication may also help: The antidepressant Wellbutrin XL was approved by the FDA in 2006 for prevention of SAD. Treatment is started in the fall, before symptoms begin, and tapered off in the spring. It should be used with extra caution in adolescents or children, who should then be closely monitored for suicidal thoughts and behavior.

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