can be treated effectively, expert says
By Ryan Robbins
The Maine Campus
For most people, it's not unusual to feel somewhat depressed
during the winter. But for some, wintertime can be a dark, dreadful
According to Michael Terman, an associate professor of clinical
psychology in psychiatry at Columbia University, suffering through
long winter days with fatigue can be effectively treated.
Considered to be one of the leading researchers of Seasonal
Affective Disorder by his peers, Terman addressed members of the
University of Maine chapter of Psi Chi, a psychology honor society,
March 28 at Donald P. Corbett Business Building.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD or winter
depression, will affect an estimated 65.5 million Americans during
their lifetime, Terman said.
While SAD and major depression -- another common mental illness
involving mood -- share some symptoms, they can be distinguished
from each other, Terman said.
For instance, depression can occur at any time of the year; SAD
is more prevalent during the winter.
"Even in cases of SAD, in the clinically severe cases, some
people get a double whammy," Terman said. "They feel terrible in
July and August and they feel terrible in January and February, and
they're much better during the transition periods. But by the
strict definition of SAD and winter depression, you must feel well
all summer. Otherwise, there's something else other than SAD."
Typical symptoms of SAD include difficulty waking up, chronic
fatigue and increased consumption of carbohydrates. Major
depression, on the other hand, involves more severe symptoms, like
psychomotor agitation: wringing of the hands; difficulty sleeping;
and either an increase or decrease in appetite.
Scientists believe the hormone melatonin plays an important
role in SAD. Manufactured in the pineal gland, a small, pea-like
structure in the brain, melatonin is released when the brain
detects darkness. Studies have shown that on average, melatonin is
released at about 9:30 p.m., Terman said.
Because melatonin causes the nervous system to slow down,
Terman recommends light therapy to suppress the production of
Patients receiving light therapy must sit in front of a special
light box that emits 10,000 lux, the equivalent of the amount of
sunlight a person receives 45 minutes after sunrise or 45 minutes
before sunset, Terman said. Treatment is daily and lasts about a
"It's a highly effective method and it works for a large
majority of people carefully diagnosed with seasonal depression,"
Terman said. Patients whose depression gets worse late in the day
are good candidates for light treatment, he said. By contrast,
people suffering from major depression tend to feel better later in
One light box on the market, which Terman demonstrated,
requires patients to set it up next to their beds. A computer
gradually increases the intensity of the light in the morning to
simulate dawn. The light can also be programmed to gradually
decrease at night to simulate dusk.
Terman also believes the absence of negative ions in the
atmosphere during the winter can also cause SAD.
"It is true negative ion availability tends to be much lower
during the winter indoors in a dry and heated environment," Terman
said. "It's affected by humidity levels tremendously."
To offset the absence of negatively charged ions, Terman
recommends treating patients with industrial-strength negative
ionizers that distribute negatively charged ions into the
In one study, patients reported feeling better after 10 days of
treatment and 20 days of treatment, Terman said. When the negative
ionizer was taken away, patients reported feeling worse, he
However, not all researchers agree with Terman's findings.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that researchers for
the most part discount light therapy and negative ion
One of those researchers is Walter A. Brown, a clinical
professor of psychiatry at Brown University School of Medicine.
"Psychiatrists aren't generally very impressed with the
efficacy of light therapy," Brown told the Journal. "It's
interesting theory, but so far the data haven't supported it."
The United States Food and Drug Administration has warned
companies that manufacture light boxes not to make claims their
products cure SAD.
As for negative ion therapy, some researchers are also
In a 1992 study conducted by Charmane Eastman of Rush-
Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, patients were
asked to sit in front of what they thought was an active negative
ionizer. The patients reported feeling just as good after treatment
as patients who had received light therapy, suggesting the
patients' improved mood was caused by a placebo effect.
Terman downplayed Eastman's findings.
"Her results over the years have vexed the field because she's
getting good placebo responses to the negative ionizer," he said.
He didn't offer an explanation for Eastman's findings.
People who suspect they may suffer from SAD or major depression
should see their doctor, Terman said.
This article originally appeared in the April 8, 1996, edition
of The Maine Campus. Copyright 1996, Ryan R. Robbins.