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Helping students beat the SAD winter blues

Last Modified: Wednesday, January 02, 2013 7:37 PM

By Nichole Osinski / American Press

Days are getting longer but the lack of sunlight can take a turn for the worse during these winter months.

Parents especially may notice their children becoming tired, grumpy or depressed due to shorter days. Seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD, is a common culprit for those who suffer the winter blahs plus the emotional and physical changes they bring.

Although no specific cause for SAD has been found, factors such as decreased sunlight, lack of sleep and less physical activity are believed to contribute to this. Acupuncturist Donald J. Snow said a contributing factor is the amount of time spent indoors while also eating a diet that consists of refined carbohydrates and high fat foods.

While students suffering from SAD may want to close the curtains and go back to bed, Snow said this will make the situation worse. Instead, he recommends getting outside for at least 10 to 15 minutes each day so that the body can make vitamin D, which is needed for bone growth in developing children.

According to a study of more than 6,000 children by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, seven of 10 American children have low levels of vitamin D. The study suggests this could increase the risk factor of bone and heart disease.

Because it is episodic, children who can’t overcome SAD may need annual counseling or psychotherapy to help them understand what they are going through, said Registered Nurse Annette Tricico, clinical liaison for Evangeline Home Health.

“Getting enough outdoor light is very important not only for vitamin D but because darkness causes people to seclude themselves, leading to not only physical ramifications but mental,” she said.

As a last resort, she suggested Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors — it’s an antidepressant commonly used for SAD — be prescribed. However, she said children and teenagers should first be encouraged to watch less TV, get outside and follow a healthier diet.

Janice Holloway, director of nursing at Oceans Behavioral Hospital, said a lack of vitamin D can also cause a lack of serotonin — it’s a brain chemical that affects mood — which in turn results in increased depression. Sleep cycles are also disrupted because of SAD with dips in serotonin making daily activity even harder for children.

“A lot of people lose interest in things and even get cravings for carbohydrates, then gain weight which adds to the depression,” she said. “Usually, if this is the diagnosis, patients can be treated in an outpatient light therapy (or) a combination of antidepressants that affect serotonin levels.”

Light therapy uses UV light to mimic the sun and help the body create vitamin D. Snow recommends this for children, as this is a gentler treatment and results can be seen in a matter of days, helping students concentrate and improve their studies.

“There’s really no difference between the body and the mind when you’re depressed,” Snow said. “Your whole body is affected when you’re depressed, mentally and physically ... but when you do something to fix it your mentally cognitive abilities increase.”

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