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Do you start wishing your were a brown bear around late December, so you could curl up inside your warm den and sleep for the next three months? Does your energy ebb quicker in the winter and your appetite soar to alarming heights? If so, you're not alone. The indolence of winter can be attributed to more than just dreary weather. Most recent estimates say about 10 million Americans suffer from seasonal depression and another 25 million have milder versions.

Lack of light has always had an effect on human beings. Like other animals, humans respond to darkness by producing more melatonin, which acts like a tranquilizer on the body. In just an hour of darkness, we can produce five times as much melatonin as during daylight hours. At sunrise, the bright light ordinarily causes the body to stop producing melatonin, but in the winter not enough light is received to trigger the signal to stop production.

For most people, the negative aspects of winter are annoying, but not a problem. However, people with a condition known as SAD, or seasonal affective disorder suffer from more serious symptoms. This malady is four times as common in women as in men. This disorder was first identified fifteen years ago by Norman Rosenthal, M.D. at the National Institute of Mental Health. Since then, scientists have continued to learn more about SAD and its effects. A milder form is known as the "winter blues."

Although SAD often begins in the late twenties, children and teenagers are also at risk. A genetic component may be involved, with most SAD sufferers having at least one close relative with a history of depression. Interestingly, the incidence increases with distance from the equator, although those who live in areas with a great deal of snow are less likely to suffer from the illness.

Individuals who suffer from SAD often experience sleep difficulties. These include problems getting up in the morning, sleeping more but not feeling refreshed upon waking and daytime drowsiness. They may have a decrease in deep sleep called slow-wave sleep causes interrupted and lower-quality sleep.

Another common symptom is changes in eating habits. SAD suffers report increased carbohydrate cravings during the winter months, often accompanied by weight gain.

While some women experience premenstrual syndrome year round, other say they intensify in the winter months.

Depression is a also symptom of SAD. Sufferers may have heightened anxiety and feelings of guilt, difficulty completing tasks, diminished sex drive and feelings of despair.

The good news is SAD is treatable in most people and light therapy is the preferred treatment. This involves exposing the eyes to daily periods of light in the form of a light box. While the standard for light boxes is full-spectrum florescent lighting, studies indicate intensity, rather than the type of light, determines the success rate. The light must be bright, at least five times brighter than a well-lit office, for example. During a session, the individual sits in front of the light box with lights on and eyes open. It's not necessary to look directly at the light. Most people show improvements by using the light box in fifteen to thirty minute increments.

Light boxes designed for this purpose are available without a prescription for between $300-$600. However, if your symptoms are serious enough to require a light box, you should first seek advice from a physician.

At least three recent studies have been conducted on bright light and its effectiveness on SAD. In all three cases, the experiments focused on which time of day was best for light therapy.

The results tend to confirm the theory that in most cases, SAD seems to be caused by a delay in the timing of events governed bycircadian (24-hour) biological rhythms, including secretion of the sleep promoting hormone melatonin. Morning light, as opposed to evening, is believed to best counteract the symptoms of SAD, by advancing the whole cycle to an earlier time of day. In the studies, three quarters of SAD sufferers responded well to the morning light therapy.

If you think you might have full-blown SAD, see your physician. If your case is mild, here are some ways to beat those winter blahs:

1. Go to the tanning bed twice a week, for ten minutes sessions. Vanity aside, tanning is beneficial because it brings much needed light into your environment. Light therapy has a proven high success rate with serious SAD suffers and it can help others as well.

2. Make time for morning or mid-day walks. The walks need not be long or arduous. The important thing is to combine the precious daylight with the benefits of exercise.

3. Look up a friend you haven't seen in years. In the fall, before the cold sets in, plan a three day weekend in January or February to visit your friend. It gives you both something enjoyable to anticipate.

4. Reduce your fat intake. High-fat meals fill the bloodstream with fat, making less oxygen available to the brain. Remember all your relatives who retreat to the couch for a nap after a holiday feast? Choose a protein or carbohydrate-rich diet.

5. Move your summer vacation to the winter. Interrupt the worst stretch of winter at a sunny beach in mid-January. Nothing improves an attitude and recharges the battery like new sights and a warm climate, while others at home are shoveling snow!

6. Visit local sights. Have you always wanted to visit that local art gallery or historical museum? Winter weekends are the perfect time. Set a goal to be a tourist in your own town and recruit a friend or family member to tag along. Ordinary, humdrum weekends will be a thing of the past.

7. Volunteer each week. Few things can alter a sagging attitude like volunteering. Deliver groceries to the homebound or work at the homeless shelter. You'll soon be counting your blessings and spending less time as a couch potato.

8. Start a new hobby. Winter is a great time to start something completely new and different. You'll be eager to get home from work to delve into your stained glass project, watercolor painting, candle-making or ballroom dancing practice. Pamper yourself with that valuable gift of time to do as you please.