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The Winter (or Summer) Blues are real: How to beat Seasonal Affective Disorder

As a primary care doctor, it's very common for patients to come to the office with the following complaints " Doc, I just don't feel like myself lately." "I've been feeling so blah, I don't know what's wrong with me" , "My sleep has been terrible these last few months". Usually, these complaints will prompt to me ask more about their mood, when symptoms started, and whether there is a yearly pattern to symptom onset. Sure enough, many folks eventually get diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

How do you know if you have SAD? Here are some common signs I hear from patients:

Low energy/ mood that occurs around the same time every year

  1. Feeling hopeless, listless or just generally "blah"

  2. Sleeping more than usual without feeling refreshed

  3. Overeating , usually in trying to compensate for low mood

  4. Feeling like you don't want to live

All these signs are also part of the diagnostic criteria for Major Depressive Disorder. The difference, is that SAD usually lifts when the seasons change. While most people think SAD only occurs in Fall-Winter, some people actually experience SAD in the Spring-Summer months instead.

What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Changes in the seasons, temperature and sunlight level can affect hormones in our body that can affect our circadian rhythm, levels of melatonin and serotonin. All these fluctuations result in the symptoms mentioned above.

What can be done to treat it?

  • Phototherapy (light therapy): Special light boxes are used to mimic natural sunlight, which can positive impact the hormones that are usually disrupted in SAD. Trying to get natural sunlight in as much as possible is also helpful. Talk to you doctor if you're considering light therapy

  • Psychotherapy: This is usually helpful for mental health struggles, but definitely in SAD. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help identify negative feelings, and figure out strategies to overcome them

  • Medications: Depending on symptom severity, some people do benefit from antidepressants during the period when they are experiencing symptoms. Talk to your doctor about possible options

  • Supplements: While some people seem to think that taking Vitamin D and melatonin help symptoms, there's not much data to indicate that supplementing with these substances significantly improve symptoms.

If you or anyone you know is suffering from seasonal affective disorder, the most important step is recognizing the symptoms, and knowing that there are options to treat it! You don't have to suffer in silence for months.

Talk to you doctor today!

Here's for a healthful and happy holiday season!

Kim Rogers, MD


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