Dec 30, 2015


Interviewer: Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that comes and goes at about the same time each year as the seasons change. We're talking about treatments for the seasonal funk coming up next on The Scope.

Announcer: Medical news and research from University of Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Interviewer: We have Dr. Jason Hunziker here with us today. He is a psychiatrist at the University of Utah and an expert on seasonal affective disorder. Dr. Hunziker, we know just being in the sun plays a big part in treating seasonal affective disorder. If you're not living in an area where sunlight comes too often, what are the other methods of treating this depression?

Dr. Hunziker: Yeah, that is a great question because I think we've been trying to figure that out forever. How do we fix this? How do we take care of this?

There are several different things that we can do, some of which you need a doctor for but some of which you can do on your own. The stuff you need a doctor for is if the depression is so bad that we need medications, we need to talk to our doctor.

Because of the changes in our neurochemistry, often it is a problem with our serotonin levels and our dopamine levels that leads to this problem. If we can use medications to help with that, great.

If you're struggling with just mild depression, moderate depression in the season, we can do therapy. We can do changes in our diet, changes in our exercise patterns and even using artificial light from a specific . . .

Interviewer: Light therapy.
Dr. Hunziker: Yeah, from a specific type of light therapy box. That can help us then improve our overall health.

Interviewer: That light isn't the same light as the light in this room, right? It's the same light from the sun.

Dr. Hunziker: That's correct. They have taken it and put it into a box essentially. They've taken all the bad rays out so all that you get is the good stuff. It's not going to damage your skin or damage your eyes, but it is going to provide the sunlight that you need to get up and get going in the morning.

Interviewer: For those who have mild depression where it's not so serious that they need to go see a doctor yet, they use the light therapy like you just mentioned, how is that used? Do they just put it on the table like a little lamp?

Dr. Hunziker: You do just put it on the table. Essentially you need to use it in the morning, because if you use it at night it does the same thing to your brain as the dark does and it shifts everything. Then, you end up not sleeping and end up in more trouble than you were before.

Put it on the table in the morning while you're eating, drinking your coffee, reading your newspaper. Let the light shine on your face. Don't look directly into the light. It does help change the way you function.

Interviewer: What are some of the other treatments besides light therapy?

Dr. Hunziker: Some of the other treatments are just making sure you're watching your diet. We tend to eat a lot of . . .

Interviewer: Diet fixes.

Dr. Hunziker: We tend to eat a lot of carbohydrates in the winter time as if we're getting ready to go into hibernation. The carbohydrates slow us down and make us more sedate. We need to eat better and make sure we're eating healthy.

Exercise is always a big thing, especially at this time of the year when it's snowing and it's cold. Nobody wants to go outside. You need to go outside. Even when it's freezing outside but there is a lot of sun, you need to go out and stand in the sun at least for 10 or 15 minutes so that you can get that sunlight which will help alleviate this problem. If you don't have access to the sun, it can't do what it needs to do with the pathways through your eyes.

Your eyes play a big important role in the regulation of this phenomenon that leads to seasonal affective disorder. Without the sun's rays it doesn't make the chemical changes that we need to then keep us happy. While it's true being out in the sun when it's cloudy can still give you skin cancer or damage your skin, it doesn't really help us as much if it's overcast. Here in Utah the inversion is really bad for us to be out in. It doesn't really give us the sunlight that we definitely need.

Interviewer: We just talked about treatments for mild depression when you're home fixing it by yourself. If it's serious and I need to go see you, what will you do to help me?

Dr. Hunziker: I will probably recommend two different things. One, if it's bad enough we would talk about medications, particularly medications that help us regulate serotonin levels. If we can get you regulating your serotonin levels, the serotonin is very instrumental in the development and production of melatonin. Without it we can't make what we need.

Additionally I would probably recommend for most people talk therapy. Particularly cognitive behavioral therapy seems to be very helpful in seasonal affective disorder.

Interviewer: In my mind I'm going how is talking about not getting enough light going to help me.

Dr. Hunziker: That's right.

Interviewer: Help me understand this.

Dr. Hunziker: Yeah, that makes sense. The not getting enough light is just one of the theories behind why we get seasonal affective disorder. With talk therapy we do get neurochemical changes in our brain. That also helps regulate serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, all of the chemicals that are responsible to help us with feeling good, feeling positive, feeling happy. If we do talk therapy as a way to release all of our stress, it does actually make changes in our brain which then can protect us from depression.

Again, living here in Utah we're at such a high risk of seasonal depression. The treatments have to be consistent with what our needs are for our population. We can use medications. We can use therapy. We can use light, exercise, diet, probably in some combination to help us stay well and healthy.

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