Light is important for all living things. During autumn we experience equal hours of darkness and daylight. Light continues to shorten dramatically until winter solstice, when daylight in the Northwest is just over eight hours each day.

Less light brings the natural desire to want more sleep. During fall and winter the lack of light causes about 20 percent of people to experience "seasonal affective disorder" (SAD). In northern latitudes, incidence can be up to 10 percent. Closer to the equator, where daylight and darkness are always nearly equal, it drops to 1 percent - 2 percent.

First reports of SAD appeared in the 19th century, but it was not until 1984 the phrase surfaced in psychiatry. Seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression reoccurring mainly during autumn and winter, is still frequently misdiagnosed. Most commonly, the onset of depression begins in September through November, and lessens in March through May. SAD affects men, women, children and even pets.

Medical treatment relies on anti-depressant drugs. The newer drugs, called serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), come with many side effects, and studies show they do little to help. Recent studies at Harvard Medical School clearly show that essential fatty acids from flax, fish and some plants are more effective than SSRI drugs.

Another accepted treatment is the light box. A study at the University of British Columbia showed that supplementing with tryptophan (found in nutritional yeast or the supplement known as 5 HTP) and vitamin D3, along with morning light therapy, achieved a 64 percent reduction in symptoms.

Light-hungry sufferers seeking relief from symptoms that affect mind, body and their internal body clocks instinctively seek more light. Bright light therapy is a fluorescent light box that produces a light intensity of 2,500 to 10,000 units at a comfortable distance (1-2 feet). Eighty-five percent of sufferers usually respond to this treatment within three to five days. Dawn stimulators are another type of light therapy that is helpful, as is changing all lighting at home and office to full-spectrum bulbs and tubes. (You’ll find these at most hardware stores.)

Accompanying difficulties with sleep are related to suppression of the hormone melatonin. You can get this naturally in nutritional yeast or by mixing one-quarter cup ricotta cheese with dark cherries. I do not encourage synthetic hormone supplementation.

St. John's wort is useful in treating SAD. Dr. Hyla Cass, a psychiatrist who works with natural treatments for mood disorders, recommends St. John's wort to promote restful sleep and enhance dreaming.

A study in 1993 shows that St. John's wort improved the condition of those who regularly experience winter depression. The extract has been thoroughly researched as a natural anti-depressant. A total of 1,592 patients have been studied in 25 double-blind controlled studies. The studies show St. John's wort reduces anxiety, depression and sleep disturbances, without side effects. Use organic, whole herb extracts for the best results.

Other helpful natural remedies for SAD include bright colors, soothing sounds, homeopathy, flower essences and essential oils. Some Ayurvedic practitioners might recommend carrying a quartz crystal.

Warm colors of yellow, orange, and red stimulate mood in color baths, lighting, room decor and clothing. People with hypertension should avoid too much red. These same colors in food provide anti-oxidants that reduce the effects of mood swings brought on by allergies. Other research has found that using a negative air ionizer to lessen indoor allergies helps reduce mood swings.

Gustav Holst's compositions Mars and Jupiter, from The Planets, are examples of music that help alleviate depression.

In classical homeopathy, using remedies called cell salts (Mag Phos, Kali Phos or Nat Mur) offers relief from depression, depending on symptoms. The flower essence of mustard, a plant with yellow flowers, lifts the shadow of gloom from the light and joy of life.

Jasmine essential oil is anti-depressant and euphoric. It stimulates beta brain wave activity as measured by electroencephalography (EEG). You might also enjoy using citrus oils, such as lemon, to stimulate your autonomic nervous system.

I’ve always suggested walking and laughing. You’ll get mood-lifting exercise, walking just 20 minutes at noon, even on dark days. This activity supplies enough natural light to stimulate the pineal gland to set your body clock, and promote vitamin D production in skin. Laughing more always stimulates endorphins, those neurotransmitters that make us feel good.

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