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Don't Be SAD: Improve Your Mood

Presents information on seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a
condition wherein the brain's internal clock may be thrown for a loop if
it does not sense a bright burst of morning light. Active ingredient in
Kava Kava, a Polynesian herb used to ease stress and anxiety; Treatment
for people with SAD. INSET: Kava Kava.

With winter and the holidays behind you, spring is a natural time torevitalize your body and mind. To help you get back on track, Psychology Today brings you the spring guide to complete wellness. PT covers mood, aging, nutrition, fitness, detoxification and skin care--all important to well-being. Read about seasonal affective disorder, losing weight, how to fight aging and much more.

Bid your blues good-bye, A burst of bright morning light just might reset your inner clock and boost your spirits.

Who hasn't had the winter blahs? The season's cold days and long nights are enough to make spring seem as if it's a hundred years away. A recent study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that depression, anger, irritability and anxiety peak in winter.

Some of this might just be cabin fever, a frustration stemming from being cooped up for long periods. But research shows that every winter tens of millions of Americans suffer from a mood disorder brought on by lack of light. The condition is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), in which the brain's internal clock can be thrown for a loop if it doesn't sense a bright burst of light in the morning.

How does the brain know how much light there is early in the day? A clump of nerve cells, known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, regulates the brain's internal clock by measuring the amount of light the eyes register. Light in the morning helps set the internal clock. And what if you oversleep? The suprachiasmatic nucleus can measure the light that seeps through your closed eyelids.

Of course, the suprachiasmatic nucleus can reset your internal clock only if it gets the right stimulus--and on dark winter days, that can be all but impossible. Unfortunately, many bodily functions actually depend on the establishment of a day-night cycle to work properly. One of those functions, researchers believe, is the production of the hormone serotonin, which is associated both with wakefulness and a sense of well-being. People with SAD may be suffering from depressed levels of serotonin.

For years the treatment for people with SAD has been to use a simulated light source. Specially made fixtures known as "light boxes" have provided relief. The boxes mimic the brightness of sunshine; experts recommend that people suffering from SAD sit in front of one for half an hour to an hour each day.

Yet new evidence suggests the timing of light may be more important than the total intensity of light. A recent study at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City found that people who got a burst of artificial light in the morning were twice as likely to overcome their seasonal depression as were those who received the light in the evening. And a recent controlled experiment by researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle found that a simulated dawn--a gradual brightening for 90 minutes in the early morning--was more effective than a sudden burst of light for half an hour.

Once spring arrives, the longer days tend to drive away SAD. But often people are so happy to throw off the cloak of winter gloom that they go too far in the other direction. There's a name for that tendency, too: spring fever.

Kava Kava:

This Polynesian herb is a pepper plant that has long been used to ease stress and anxiety

When stress gets too great to bear, some people have been turning to a natural mood booster: kava. South Pacific islanders have long served the brewed root of the kava plant in a coconut shell as a means to relieve anxiety. So it is fitting that its Latin name, piper methysticum, means "intoxicating pepper."

Chemists have been able to isolate the active ingredients in kava--a group of fat-like chemicals known as kavalactones--and though popping a kava pill doesn't have an exotic appeal, it seems to work just as well. Some experts believe that kavalactones act much like Western tranquilizers, but without many of the side effects.