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The Truth About Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder

Listen, I’m nice and spoiled. I live in San Diego, which hands down has amazing weather most days out of the year. However, as we do head toward our colder months (and by that, I mean some rainy days with some beach worthy days still in the mix!), I know that I can instantly feel down during darker days. Is this the same as Seasonal Affective Disorder? And what exactly is SAD? And what can be done if you have the symptoms? Breezy Mama turned to Dr. Soroya Bacchus, a triple board certified psychiatrist, to get the truth about the Winter Blues and SAD.

The second the sun isn’t out, I feel my mood decline. Is that Seasonal Affective Disorder or a variation of it?

The weather can have a profound effect on our mood. Temperature, wind and sunlight levels have been found to have a direct result on how we feel. Just because you are feeling tired or a tad depressed when the sun isn’t out does not mean that you are afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). However, if you are experiencing these depressive symptoms for more than two straight weeks, it is possible that you are experiencing SAD and should consult a mental health professional for an evaluation.

What can someone who experiences mood changes based on weather do to avoid feeling down?

There are many different treatments for classic (winter-based) seasonal affective disorder, including light therapy with sunlight or bright lights, antidepressant medication, cognitive-behavioral therapy, ionized-air administration, and carefully timed supplementation of the hormone Melatonin. Additionally, exercise and diet can have a large impact on one’s overall energy levels and as a result, how they are feeling at any one time. It may seem inconsequential, but reaching out and volunteering or doing things for others can boost your self-esteem and help with symptoms of depression. Lastly, don’t isolate yourself from the world when the weather gets you down. Surround yourself with friends and loved ones during these hard times of the year.

Does vitamin D help with Seasonal Affective Disorder and Winter Blues?

SAD symptoms are most prevalent when Vitamin D stores in the body are at low levels. Light therapy is recommended to people suffering from SAD because certain types of light, specifically Broad-Spectrum light, includes wavelengths of light in the range of 280-320 nm range. Repeated exposure over a course of treatments to this wavelength allows the skin to produce, and thus replenish, the stores of Vitamin D in the body which contribute to overall SAD symptoms. Because of this fact and the positive results, light therapy is one of the most commonly used treatments in SAD patients.

What specifically is the true Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, often referred to as the “Winter Blues” or “Seasonal Depression,” is a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms during the winter, summer, spring, or fall year after year. If someone experiences these symptoms in the summertime, it is called Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder. This disorder is not a unique disorder according to the DSM-IV, but rather a “specifier of major depression.”

What can people do if they get those symptoms seasonally?

If you experience stark changes in your mood year after year during the same season, it is possible that you are affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder. There are many options available to treat individuals based upon their particular needs. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy has proven to be successful in the treatment of SAD, and may be used in conjunction with antidepressant medication. Light therapy and ionized-air treatment are also highly viable options to relieve these symptoms. Lastly, careful supplementation of the hormone Melatonin can also be effective. I would suggest starting with light therapy as soon as you wake for 20 or 30 minutes, followed by 3mg of Melatonin 12 hours later. Melatonin is actually a precursor to Serotonin, a neurotransmitter which is responsible for improving mood. This is why antidepressants, or serotonin reuptake inhibitors, can be effective in treating SAD as well. Try light therapy in conjunction with Melatonin first, and if there is no improvement then consult your primary care doctor or psychiatrist.

Do you need to be diagnosed, or is it safe to assume you suffer from SAD when your mood drastically changes with the season?

If you are experiencing the symptoms of SAD or suffering from seasonal depression that becomes more severe or affects your overall functioning, share your experience and thoughts with your therapist or psychiatrist to obtain an unbiased opinion. If you are in fact diagnosed with SAD, work closely with this professional to determine the best course of treatment and follow their direction.

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About Dr. Soroya Bacchus:
Soroya Bacchus is a triple board certified psychiatrist who specializes in Psychosomatic Medicine, Addiction Medicine, and Pain Management. Her clinical focus is the treatment of major psychiatric disorders, with a particular interest in addiction medicine. She received her medical degree from Howard University Medical School, and completed her Psychiatry fellowship at the UCLA Neuropsychiatry Institute, and her psychiatry residency at the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

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