March 9, 2007 -- Daylight-saving time has been a rite of April for many of the last 30 years. But that changes this Sunday morning, when clocks spring forward three weeks ahead of schedule.
Congress's legally binding response to Punxsutawney Phil's unreliable shadow is known to many as the true marker of spring. However, to Americans with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), those who craft their daily routines to maximize exposure to daylight, it means much more.
"Individuals with [SAD] do well when they are exposed to bright light early in the morning," said Dr. Dan Blazer, a psychiatrist at the Duke University Medical Center.
Bedrooms and living rooms are rearranged so that sunlight can find its most direct route to couches and beds. And work hours must be carefully monitored so that a person suffering from seasonal depression isn't cut off from natural light 40 or 50 hours per week.
But with sunrise pushed back, more people around the country will spend their morning commute in relative darkness.
As a result, the 10 percent to 20 percent of the American population which the American Psychiatric Association said have experienced some form of seasonal depression in the past may find symptoms popping up earlier than usual.
The stigma that still surrounds depression is only heightened when discussing SAD, its temporal cousin. Many find it hard to believe that there can be a relationship between mental health and the amount of hours the sun shines in a given day.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain brought on by the shortening of daylight hours and a lack of sunlight in winter. It's as real as the common cold or a tough case of strep throat, psychiatrists say.
"Younger persons and women are thought to be at higher risk. There is also some evidence suggesting that the farther someone lives from the equator, the more likely they are to develop SAD," the APA reported in a 2004 press release.
Symptoms of depression are the same whether it's seasonal or not. "It includes interruption of the sleep patterns, especially broken sleep and waking up early in the morning," said Blazer. "Among seasonal affective disorder, we typically think of an increased appetite; lassitude, just no energy whatsoever; difficulty concentrating, thinking about things; feeling that nothing is of interest or worth doing."
Diagnosed patients are usually prescribed standard anti-depressants. But unlike most depression cases, the timed arrival of dawn and dusk play a key role in managing treatment.
The severity of the symptoms vary from case to case, but the fickle nature of SAD means patients should keep a close eye on the both their moods and the weather.
"There's a range of seasonal mood responses," Blazer said. "Some can be mild, but there are some individuals who go through significant episodes of major depression -- the most severe depression we see -- that come on, predictably, every fall and begin to lift in the spring."
Because no drugs are prescribed solely for SAD, most patients simply attune their anti-depressant intake to the changing of the seasons.
If that's not enough, Blazer recommends an end around past the new legislation, which was originally conceived as a way to reduce energy consumption. (Studies done by the U.S. Department of Transportation show that daylight-saving time trims the entire country's electricity usage by about 1 percent each day.)
"It doesn't matter whether it's sunlight or artificial light," Blazer said, recommending those who suspect they suffer from the disorder buy a lamp for the specific purpose of infusing more light into their home.
"There are relatively inexpensive light boxes that can be bought that provide the intensity necessary," Blazer said, "and you don't have to be looking directly into it. You just put it beside you. For example, when you get up in the morning and sit at the kitchen table to read the paper, have this box next to you -- your eyes pick up the light there. That, we think, may be a corrective to this seasonal problem."
And with four added weeks of daylight-saving time figured into the coming year, the time to go out and buy that lamp may have finally come.
Shine a light on your problems, the doctor said. Just don't expect the insurance company to offer a co-pay on your next power bill.
Caroline Berler contributed to this report