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Seasonal Affective Disorder: It’s Not Just the Winter Blues

Posted by Mary Anne Alexander, M.D. on Dec 16, 2015

There are many reasons to love fall and winter: the changing leaves, the cool weather and the holiday cheer that’s just around the corner. However, for many Americans each year, the fall and winter seasons bring the unwelcome symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Seasonal-Affective-Disorder-Its-Not-Just-the-winter-blues.jpgWithout a proper diagnosis, it is often easy to confuse true SAD with a lighter case of the “winter blues.” This refers to the time in which the many changes in your lifestyle, such as reduced activity and socialization, a changing sleep schedule, and less natural sunlight, leads to tired, sluggish and generally less happy feelings.

As the first defender of your health, it’s important to understand the difference between a case of the winter blues and actually having a medical situation like SAD so that you can speak with your doctor about the right strategy for improving your health.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is defined as an episode of major depression with a cyclical pattern. SAD typically begins and ends with the seasons, causing many people to know it as “winter depression.”  

Even though SAD is an episode of depression, it often presents different symptoms from depression. While the symptoms of depression may include decreased mood, inability to sleep and weight loss, SAD symptoms may include mild or vague instances of increased sleep, increased appetite and weight gain. Because the symptoms are unusual, it is easier to miss them and not realize what is happening is related to SAD.

Preventing Seasonal Affective Disorder

Heading into the fall and winter seasons, many people change their behaviors to account for the fading sunlight and new demands on their schedule. Rather than allowing the changing season to affect your exercise schedule or sleeping habits, try to anticipate those changes and plan ahead. Identify the challenge that causes you to miss your exercise (such as the cold weather) and identify a solution (such as signing up for an indoor cycling class).

It’s also particularly helpful for your doctor if you keep track of the symptoms you’re experiencing. Start a journal of how you’re feeling so that you can catch changes in irritability or changes in weight. This will also have the benefit of making you more mindful and helping you pay better attention to how you feel.

Finding the Right Treatment

Because of the variety and vagueness of the symptoms, it can be tricky to determine if your seasonal symptoms are a seasonal cycle or permanent depression. The first step is always to talk to your physician about what you’re experiencing so that you can identify the right treatment for your symptoms.

For example, many patients experience the alleviation of depression symptoms by starting light therapy with a light box that mimics outdoor light. Other patients may reduce depression symptoms by modifying their diet to reduce sugar, dairy or grains. For some patients, medication and counseling therapy may be the right solution.  

How Concierge Medicine Alleviates SAD Symptoms

Unfortunately, sometimes SAD symptoms are subtle, and a quick 10-minute visit with your doctor doesn’t get to the bottom of what’s happening. When you work with a concierge medical practice, like PartnerMD, your doctor can spend more time with you and discuss what’s going on in more detail. Concierge medicine physicians have the time to ask questions or talk to your other providers to get to the bottom of the problem.

Next Steps for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Anytime you have a symptom you aren’t sure of, it’s important to connect with your primary care physician to get it evaluated. This can reassure you that you aren’t missing a larger problem, and in the case of SAD it can help you verify that a more serious case of depression is not at hand.

Nothing is worse than feeling like something is wrong or off but not being able to identify it. SAD is one of those situations where you may not be sure if something is happening, and it is not a simple problem to diagnose. Being a concierge medicine patient allows your physician to get to know you well enough to be able to notice when something doesn’t seem right and help guide you toward a good solution.

Don’t wonder about whether what you’re feeling could be symptoms of SAD. Talk to your PartnerMD physician today if you have any signs of SAD or want to learn more.

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

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Topics: Health and Wellness

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