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Combating Seasonal Affective Disorder

Posted by Virginia Kladder, M.D. on Jan 1, 2015

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Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as winter depression or the winter blues, is a mood disorder that affects some people when daylight hours are shorter — November to March in most areas of the country.

These normally mentally healthy individuals experience depressive symptoms in the winter, including:

  • Anxiety

  • Hopelessness/depression

  • Loss of energy/interest in normal activities

  • Oversleeping

  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for high-carbohydrate foods

  • Weight gain

  • Difficulty concentrating and processing information

  • Social withdrawal

If you think you could be suffering from the disorder, visit a physician or mental health provider to see if they think an evaluation is in order. An evaluation often is done in conjunction with a physical exam to check for underlying issues that could be linked to depression and medical tests to rule out underlying conditions.

The disorder can be difficult to diagnose because other types of depression or mental health conditions have similar symptoms. Generally, the following criteria are used to diagnose Seasonal Affective Disorder:

  • The patient has experienced depression and other symptoms during the same months for at least two consecutive years.

  • The depression is followed by periods without depression.

  • There are no underlying medical causes or other explanations.

There are low-cost, readily available treatments including light therapy and prescription or over-the-counter medications or vitamin supplements.

Light therapy involves the use of a specialized light as a substitute for sunlight. Patients are exposed to the light for a specified time. This exposure can cause a change in chemicals in the brain that are linked to mood. Light therapy is easy, affordable and seems to have few side effects. (To see whether it elevates your mood, try sitting by a window or getting outside on bright days.)

Other patients are prescribed antidepressants, especially if symptoms are severe. Some physicians recommend starting antidepressants before the symptoms begin and may recommend continuing beyond the time that symptoms usually go away.

An over-the-counter alternative often recommended is vitamin D. During the winter, many people don't get enough vitamin D from sunlight. We typically recommend vitamin D supplements of 1,000 to 2,000 units a day, although some people may require more. Be sure to alert your doctor if you begin taking a supplement.

It's normal to have up-and-down days. But it's important to recognize if you feel depressed for days or are not able to eat or pursue normal activities. See your physician and find out if you're suffering from SAD.

To learn more about how to your health and wellness, download our eBook “Eat, Sleep and Be Merry”:
 

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Topics: Medical Perspectives, Lifestyle & Wellness


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