October 2012

A Preemptive Strike On SAD

Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is something that is talked about quite a bit around wintertime, but you will see why I think it is important to talk about it now. SAD is a type of depression that happens as a result of the light changes that occur with the onset of fall and winter. Those with the condition start to feel sad or moody, lose interest in regular activities, crave carbohydrates and have sleeping problems. Typically these symptoms resolve in the spring when the weather gets nice.

If this has happened to you two or more years in a row then you probably have SAD. There are a combination of treatments that may help. Antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy are usually recommended. A more recent therapy has been found to be quite effective in addition to these two. It can often be used alone as well; light therapy.

Light therapy can simulate the sun and restore balance to our circadian or body rhythm. It is easy to use and can be extremely helpful. The key is to find the right kind of light and to use it at the correct time of day. The lights for SAD are available commercially and on the Internet. They are usually fluorescent or incandescent and emit little to no UV light.

Generally, you would want to turn the light on first thing in the morning and have it within 2 feet of you for about 30 minutes. There are light boxes specifically designed for SAD. Unfortunately the FDA does not regulate them so it is important to do your homework regarding their safety and effectiveness.

I never thought that I had SAD. However, I found a deal on a light box last year at Costco and decided to do an experiment on myself. Every morning starting in September and ending in May, I used it for 30 minutes. I would turn it on the minute I got up and kept it on while I did my daily email check-in. I noticed that I was happier last winter, with fewer mood swings and was able to keep to my healthy eating plan. My husband noticed that I was easier to live with (the real acid test!).

The key I have discovered with my patients (and myself) is to start with the light box NOW. I noticed the light changing last week and fired it up again. You want to stay on top of this and it will help you to make a smooth mood transition to fall and winter.

I have a very good friend who is a therapist in Portland. He likens the treatment of SAD to that of physical pain. It is much easier to treat if you catch it early and stay in front of it. If you get behind it you are always chasing your tail.

If you think you have SAD you might want to check out light boxes and talk to your doctor. It can make for a much more pleasant winter season!

Dancing For Happiness

When I was in junior high school, my mother signed me up for ballroom dance classes. The classes took place in the school gym once a week. The girls had to wear dresses and white gloves and the boys had to wear dress up clothes. I remember feeling like I was being tortured. That was my impression of ballroom dance until several years ago when I tried it again.

Not only do I enjoy it, I found that it makes me really happy. Since I have been dancing I feel stronger, more flexible, and I have great endurance and energy. No matter what is going on in my life, after I go dancing I feel good.

I have a patient who is crazy about tennis. I asked her what it is about tennis that she likes so much. She said that it is all about that focus on that little yellow ball. When she is playing, that is the only thing that matters. That is how I feel about the ballroom. For the moments of the dance I am in 100%.

What does ballroom dancing do physically? It boosts endorphins; those feel good hormones we keep hearing about. It also builds muscles. It strengthens legs muscles but also requires core strength. It is great aerobic exercise that builds endurance.

Probably the best benefit is what it does for the brain. Many of us are looking at ways to keep our minds intact and prevent dementia. Partner dancing is the best way to do that. A 21 year long study of seniors over 75 found that bicycling, swimming and playing golf did nothing for preventing dementia. However, partner dancing done frequently decreased the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 76%. Partner dance included waltz, Latin dances such as tango and salsa and swing.

I have a fondness for Argentine tango and West Coast Swing. Both dances are fun, challenging, allow for continued improvement (an understatement) and they have helped my brain to become sharper while helping me to be happy.

If you are looking for something that will help you to be healthier (both physically and mentally) while promoting happiness and a sense of well being that is fun and doesn’t feel like exercise; get out there and start dancing!

Coffee: A Health Drink?

I am addicted to coffee and proud of it. I look forward to the ritual of that morning cup of coffee to start my day. I felt guilty for many years with the thought that maybe it was not such a healthy thing to be drinking. However, as more studies have been done, I feel pretty good about my morning java.

In the early coffee drinking years there was a concern that it caused pancreatic cancer. That is because when the studies were done, they did not control for cigarette smoking and other risk factors for pancreatic cancer. It turns out that coffee drinking and cigarette smoking go together for many and that is how coffee got the bad rap. It was the cigarette smoke and not the coffee that increased the risk for pancreatic cancer.

Now we know that there are actual benefits to coffee drinking. There are many. Here are a few. Read on.

Coffee and the brain

Coffee helps with alertness and the ability to focus. A study done at Pennsylvania State University found that 1 to 2 cups of coffee a day improve concentration and memory.

A study done by the University of South Florida and the University of Miami found that in patients with mild cognitive impairment, those who drank three cups of caffeinated coffee regularly had a slower progression to Alzheimer’s disease by several years. Coffee may prevent dementia altogether.

Several studies have found that those who drink caffeinated coffee have a decreased risk for developing Parkinson’s disease. In addition, a recent study found that those with Parkinson’s disease who were given caffeine (the equivalent of between 2 and 4 cups of coffee a day) had significantly improved movement.

A research study of over 50,000 women found that drinking 4 or more cups of caffeinated coffee daily decreased the incidence of depression by 20% as compared to those who did not drink coffee. A smaller study done in Finland found that men who were frequent coffee drinkers were less likely to commit suicide.

Coffee and cancer prevention

Research has found that women who drank the equivalent of three or more cups of caffeinated coffee daily had a 20% decrease in the risk of developing basal cell cancer. Men had a 9% decreased risk.

Yet another study found that women who drank four or more cups of caffeinated coffee daily had a 25% decreased risk of developing endometrial cancer when compared to women who drank one cup or less daily.

Yet another study found that those who drank four or more cups of caffeinated coffee daily had a 39% decrease in oral cavity cancers.

Coffee and diabetes and heart disease

Several studies have confirmed that those who drink four or more cups of coffee daily have a 50% decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Another study has found that coffee in moderation (described as 2 cups a day) decreased the risk of heart failure by 11%.


Of course coffee does have some risks. It can precipitate heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux. Some people may get jittery if they overindulge, and it can cause palpitations in others. Adding sugar, syrups and cream can turn coffee into a high calorie drink. The caffeine addiction is real for habitual coffee drinkers and withdrawl can cause a wicked headache. However, overall it is relatively safe.


I am not urging anyone to start drinking coffee, but I would like to ease the guilt of those coffee drinkers who have been worrying about its safety. Drink your coffee but remember (which will be easier for you to do if you drink coffee!) as in all things, moderation is the key.


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