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Light relief in winter's dark hours.

Byline: By Julie Cush

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) brings the winter blues to one in 20 people. But there are lots of way to combat the condition, as Julie Cush finds out

October has always been a bad month for 71-year-old Mary Swainsbury.

It was in this month that she lost both her mum and dad, suffered a miscarriage and thrombosis and ended up being hospitalised with severe depression.

Ten years ago, the mother-of-seven began to suffer from hot flushes and doctors believe the condition damaged the delicate balance of hormones in her body, triggering the blues.

After the collapse of her marriage, the retired canteen manageress, from Hebburn, battled depression which always got worse in the winter, especially from October onwards.

Mary has used antidepressants for many years, which at times made her feel zombie-like.

So when she saw an advert on the television for a "lightbox", she thought it was worth trying a more natural approach to beating the blues even though it was expensive - pounds 400.

Mary said: "I used to be a jolly person, going out dancing five nights a week. People used to call me Happy Mary but then in the winter I change into this gloomy person who hates the dark, rain and cold.

"I ordered the lightbox which is about 18ins by 2ft, and use it about 20 minutes a day. I stand it in the kitchen and put it on while I'm having my breakfast and curling my hair.

"I don't know whether it is a case of mind over matter and it works because I believe it will work but it makes me feel lighter and seems to penetrate the fogginess in my head."

As well as winning her battle against depression, Mary also found new love and tied the knot with retired engineer George, 83, three years ago.

They honeymooned in sunny Malta, which did them the power of good as George also has a tendency to get a bit grumpy as the nights draw in.

Mary also believes that a healthy, balanced diet helps her combat her problems and makes sure she eats plenty of fruit and vegetables.

SAD is a specific type of depression and its most likely cause is lack of sunlight. It is three times more likely to affect women than men aged between 18 and 40. It also comes at the worst time, when every ounce of strength and vitality is needed to cope with colder weather and Christmas.

Light deprivation in winter makes the pineal gland go haywire. This tiny nut-sized gland in the brain regulates hormones, sleep and moods.

But when it's out of sync, symptoms such as extreme fatigue, mood swings, carbohydrate cravings, early waking and apathy set in.

Often sufferers are diagnosed with clinical depression and inappropriately prescribed antidepressants.

But there are more natural ways to banish the blues, including taking regular exercise, cutting down on alcohol, taking foods rich in vitamin B or trying light therapy.

Symptoms usually start between September and November, when days become shorter. Light intensity is measured in "lux", the Latin word for light.

On a summer's day we have up to 16 hours of daylight, at 100,000 lux. In winter an eight-hour dull day will give us under 5,000 lux and indoor lighting rarely exceeds 500 lux.

Lack of light causes an increase in the production of melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy at night, and a reduction of serotonin, which makes us feel happy. The exposure to bright light therapy reverses the process, with the additional benefit of being drug-free.

Studies have also shown that bright light therapy can prove beneficial with pre-menstrual syndrome, jet lag and insomnia.

Dr Rob Hicks, editor of the BBC's health website, says: "Many people find they feel a little bit low during the winter months but SAD sufferers feel down all the time.

"Classic symptoms include lack of energy, tiredness, low spirits and generally feeling rather miserable.

"For many, both eating habits and sleep patterns alter, sex drive is often lost and it may become hard to concentrate at work.

"Obviously eating a sensible diet containing plenty of fruit and vegetables during the winter months can keep symptoms at bay.

"Bananas are particularly good as they help boost energy level and contain a natural mood-enhancer."

If symptoms are mild, Dr Hicks recommends spending more time outdoors exercising during daylight hours.

But for more severe symptoms, exposure to a regular dose of artificial light every day, about 30 minutes, can help.

Lightboxes range in price from pounds 90 to pounds 400. For more information visit www.sad.uk.com
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Dec 15, 2003
Words:773
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