Health & Medicine

Take a walk in the sunshine to chase your winter blues

In the haunting 1959 short story All Summer in a Day by science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, Margot lives on oppressively rainy Venus, where the sun appears just once every seven years. Classmates, jealous because Margot once lived on Earth and remembers the sun's brilliance and warmth, lock her in a dark closet on the historic day it appears.

There is a real Italian Alpine village that is sunless from mid-November through early February because it's tucked in the shadow of a steep mountain. The mayor recently had a 430-square-foot mirror installed on a mountainside to deflect the sun's rays into the town square.

During winter, many of 
us have felt a little like ­Margot or the 200 residents of ­Viganella.

For most people, shorter days and a dearth of regular sunshine result in mild lethargy and gloominess. But some people have enough psychological and biological symptoms to be diagnosed with winter depression, or seasonal affective disorder, according to Michael Young, an associate professor at the Institute of Psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Recurring depression is the hallmark symptom of SAD, which usually begins in the fall or winter and resolves in spring or summer. Other signs include low energy, declining sexual interest, sleepiness, increased appetite and weight gain.

SAD is thought to be connected to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls our mood, activity, sleep, temperature and sex drive. Natural light stimulates the hypothalamus after it passes through the eye's retina. If less light is available, these functions shut down.

The main treatment is light therapy, which might work by resetting biological rhythms. Sessions involve sitting for 15 to 20 minutes in front of a special light box that is about 15 times brighter than the light in a home or office. Anti-depressant drugs, which might have side effects, also can be used for SAD, but studies have shown that light therapy is just as effective, making it a matter of preference.

Still, don't rush out and buy a light box for $200 to $300. If you're just feeling sluggish and lethargic, Young suggests taking an early-­morning walk for 30 minutes. Even if the sun is behind clouds, it will provide needed light.

If you think you have SAD, visit a mental-health professional who specializes in mood or sleep disorders, in part to rule out other problems. And read up on SAD. The Web site for The Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms is at (www.sltbr.org).

In addition to exercising and getting outdoors, my own treatment for the winter blues includes rereading All Summer in a Day, which is so vivid that you can feel the sun's warmth.

For a cheerier version, watch the film. The kids change their mind and free Margot just before the sun vanishes, so she can see a sliver of sunlight. Bradbury liked that ending more than his own, said Sam Weller, a professor at Columbia College Chicago and author of The Bradbury Chronicles.

In the book, you feel Margot's devastation. But the story is impossible to shake, and the memory of it might help nudge you outside when the sun does appear. ”I think the sun is a flower,“ Margot wrote in her class poem, ”That blooms for just one hour.“

Wherever you live, don't take it for granted.

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