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Here Comes the Sun

Lack of light can make you SAD, and alcohol can make it worse.

Fall and winter are dark days for people with seasonal affective disorder: their spirits dwindle along with the sun's rays. For those who turn to alcohol to brighten their mood, an innovative form of light therapy may help keep them sober—and cheerful.

Dawn simulation, as it's known, creates the illusion of a summer sunrise via a lamp suspended over the patient's bed. The light from the lamp increases in intensity from 4:30 to 6 A.M., gently easing the sleeper into a sunny morning. After just one week of exposure to such white light, report David Avery and colleagues at the University of Washington, patients show much lower levels of depression than those who wake to red light, used as a control in the studies.

Relapse is more common among drinkers with any kind of depression, and the link between alcoholism and SAD seems to be especially strong. In one study, 50 percent of the female patients in an alcohol abuse program were also diagnosed with the seasonal disorder. Researchers suspect that both alcoholism and SAD are linked to problems with regulation of serotonin, the brain's feel-good neurotransmitter.

Even if the simulated sunrises don't directly affect patients' alcohol problems, says Avery, they do seem to alleviate their melancholy and help correct their sleep cycles, which often get off-track during depression.