Yesterday was the shortest day of the year, and maybe the toughest day for some people who feel depressed when there’s less sunshine.

The condition, seasonal affective disorder, or SAD is an energy-sapping depression that occurs at the same time each year, and affects an estimated 3 to 5% of Americans. It’s more common in the Pacific Northwest – as well as in other northern areas – because it’s triggered by long winter evenings. Though common belief blames the rain for more SAD in Portland and Seattle, it’s actually about less sunlight.

Supporters of light therapy believe SAD is underdiagnosed partly because some healthcare providers look at a patient’s current mood and prescribe an antidepressant, rather than identifying a seasonal tendency. Dr. Michael Terman, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and author of the book “Reset Your Inner Clock” says “Or more sensibly the doctor advises monitoring before medicating, and you return in April completely remitted, so ‘it was nothing.'”

However a new trend is happening in the northwest to help people deal with SAD. A bar in Portland and a cafe in Seattle now feature light boxes. While most customers come in to have a drink, or talk with friends, some customers come in for light therapy. “I really call it atmosphere therapy in here more than anything,” says Alex Carlson, the owner of Portland’s Lightbar, who has had his own struggles with SAD. Booths have light-therapy lamps and each booth is covered in a white canopy to give the impression that one is in a cocoon. The walls are painted in a deep blue color to suggest the color of the sky just before sunrise, and in red to bring to mind the hues of a winter sky.

Dr. Terman, says that when light therapy works, it generally works quickly – within a week.

Though people are usually more responsive to light therapy early in the morning, which conflicts with Lightbar’s nighttime hours, Dr. Alfred Lewy, an Oregon Health & Science University professor who is an expert on SAD and light therapy says “you can’t discount the placebo effect.” He adds, “If something helps a patient feel better – and it’s not costly and it doesn’t have side effects – who am I to discourage it?”   San Francisco Chronicle   12/22/13


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