Ask our Experts

A reader asks:

I am a flight attendant, so my sleep patterns are erratic. My work schedules are also varied — sometimes working early mornings and other times well into the night. I am a morning person, but obviously cannot confine my work schedule to just early hours. I tend to become depressed in winter — wanting to sleep from darkness on. I exercise regularly, but still feel tired and blue all winter long. Is there anything that will help?

Answer:

Irregular Schedules: A Disadvantage

From the circadian rhythm vantage point, your irregular schedule presents a no-win situation (which, in the long run, could have deleterious effects on general health). Your winter depression probably should not be treated with light therapy, which could intensify the disruptive effect of repeated time-zone shifts.

Air Ionization May Be Better Than Antidepressant Meds

However, there are at least two treatment approaches that could relieve your depression. The conventional solution would be antidepressant medication (e.g., Prozac, Zoloft or Wellbutrin), for which clinical trials indicate at least partial benefit for SAD. On the other hand, we think you should also consider negative air ionization, a very promising non-pharmacological treatment for SAD (and possibly for depression in general) that has been tested successfully in three separate controlled trials at Columbia University Medical Center (info: www.cet.org). Unlike for light therapy, we do not think the time of day of treatment is going to prove important. You could simply plug in the ionizer in your hotel room or bedroom whenever you go to sleep, and monitor whether your mood and energy improve.

Portable Ionization Units

While we are at it, let us mention another use for negative air ionization that has drawn interest from flight staff and frequent travelers. There is a battery-powered negative air ionizer, a bit smaller than a cigarette pack, that can be worn as a pendant or placed in a breast pocket. It directs the flow of ions upward around the head. Since such ionization is known to kill circulating pathogens in the air circulation, this method may reduce post-flight respiratory infections. (This method of ionization has not yet been tested for antidepressant action.) Several years ago, the flight attendants’ union expressed interest in having a formal trial conducted, but sponsorship was not forthcoming. Obviously, airlines might disallow staff from wearing ionizers, because it would draw attention to the ubiquitous problem of cabin air purity.