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Winter blues could be hereditary

winter llight image

... and light can be key to banishing them

January 31, 1996
Web posted at: 7:45 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Jeff Levine

BETHESDA, Maryland (CNN) -- Scientists know that winter can put a chill on your emotional state, but now it appears that seasonal mood swings are a family affair, and there is light at the end of the tunnel. Researchers say that they now have more information linking genes to the winter blues and a way to dramatically decrease negative emotions.

For Alan Merson, winter was more than gloomy; it was absolutely devastating. Merson suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, a drastic mood swing that occurs in the colder, gloomier months.

light therapy

"It's a pain and a sorrow that's very akin to having the closest people to you die and it never lets up and the pain becomes all-encompassing," Merson says.

After an attempted suicide and several stays in mental hospitals, Merson literally saw the light. Patients exposed to a special type of illumination often find their emotional darkness lifts, since the condition is believed to be related to light deprivation.

Alan Merson

"It's been instrumental, absolutely," Merson says.

Merson's case is extreme, but doctors believe as many as one in five Americans experiences a mild emotional reverse from October through March.

Winter mood swings are a cold fact of life but now researchers at the National Institutes of Health are reporting that the problem isn't just random. It runs in families.

Normal Rosenthal

The study looked at some 4,600 Australian twins, and it appears that about one-third of their seasonal mood and behavior changes are genetic. "The message is that if you have seasonal changes and if they cause you problems, it's not your fault, it's not a weakness of character. It's probably in your genes," says Dr. Normal Rosenthal of the National Institutes of Health.

Rosenthal himself uses a light to overcome a minor mood slump in winter. He says that the study indicates that seasonal mood swings are as biological as diabetes or high blood pressure.

Further research may tell if SAD, the extreme end of the seasonal mood swing, is also inherited.

In the meantime, much can be done. "There is light therapy, there is exercise, medications, psychotherapy, stress management, all sorts of things you can do to feel better," Rosenthal says.

Merson says that many in his family suffer from the same problem, and he credits light therapy with saving his life. "Just a long time ago, I decided, I can't live like this. I'm a generally, fairly positive person. I want to live," Merson says.

If all else fails, doctors recommend relocation to warmer physical and emotional climes as a cure.



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