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Guarding Against the Winter Slump

Recognizing and Combating Seasonal Affective Disorder


Volodymyr Manko, MD, Aspirus Hospitalist

As the seasons shift and the days grow shorter, many individuals find themselves grappling with more than just a change in weather. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), often referred to as the "winter blues," can cast a cloud over their well-being. Understanding how to identify and effectively handle the condition is crucial, particularly for people living in the upper Midwest this time of year.

SAD is a form of depression that follows a seasonal pattern, most commonly emerging during fall and winter. "SAD is a depressive disorder that tends to only recur with certain seasons, and it tends to happen in the fall and winter when sunlight hours tend to shorten,” explains Volodymyr Manko, MD, Aspirus Hospitalist. “Demographically, we see it more often in our younger patients as well as our female patients. Women are actually four times as likely to develop this as compared to men, though it really can affect anyone.”

The science behind SAD is rooted in the interplay between light exposure and our body's internal clock. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), reduced exposure to natural sunlight can disrupt our circadian rhythms and impact the production of serotonin and melatonin – neurotransmitters that regulate mood and sleep.

Dr. Manko notes that the symptoms of SAD often mirror those of major depressive disorder:

  • Low Mood: Prolonged feelings of sadness, hopelessness and irritability
  • Fatigue: Increased tiredness and a struggle to maintain energy levels
  • Appetite Changes: Cravings for carbohydrates, weight gain or increased appetite
  • Social Withdrawal: A tendency to isolate oneself and avoid social interactions
  • Concentration Difficulties: Trouble with focus, memory and decision-making

Diagnosing SAD involves a thorough evaluation of symptoms, medical history and ruling out other conditions. "Early diagnosis is crucial," says Dr. Manko. “So if you or somebody you know experiences recurrent symptoms of sadness that appear to be seasonal, you should reach out to your primary care provider immediately."

A variety of treatment recommendations may be made, depending on severity. Treatment options encompass a range of approaches from light therapy, psychotherapy (or talk therapy), medication and vitamin D. Additionally, Dr. Manko recommends a well-balanced lifestyle, including time outdoors when the weather is mild, regular physical activity, a healthy diet and social engagement.

With the right strategies, SAD can be managed effectively, enabling individuals to reclaim their joy and resilience even in the face of seasonal challenges. Talk with your primary care provider to discuss the best course of action for your healing.




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