Long nights, shorter days, and bitter cold can make anyone want to crawl back into bed and stay there with a good book all day. But, when symptoms of depression start to take over – either for yourself or your loved one - it may be due to a real disorder called “SAD” or “Seasonal Affective Disorder.”
Causes of Winter Depression
This disorder is related to our body’s ability to regulate night and day rhythms. While research has identified some trends, it is not yet entirely known why less sunlight causes depression. One theory is that the seasonal changes interfere with an important amino acid in our bodies called Melatonin – which regulates our sleep-wake cycles and may play a role in mood and appetite.
Another possibility is that it is related to Vitamin D. Our skin needs direct contact with the ultraviolet rays of the sun to make one type of Vitamin D. Being deficient of this important nutrient is related to both depression and obesity. Seniors are more likely to have a Vitamin D deficiency since elderly skin is less efficient at producing this nutrient and they may be less active outside during cold weather.
Another school of thought is that seasonal depression may be simply due to less activity overall, less socializing, lack of exercise, and disappointments over the holidays.
While no one element above seems to be certain to cause depression, it may be a combination of these.
Signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Weight Gain and Increased Appetite
- Feeling “heavy,” slow, and/or Sluggish
- Less energy overall – particularly in the afternoon
- Increased sleepiness
- Feeling unhappy, sad, or tearful
- Loss of interest in regular activities and social engagement
- Increase in desire to eat carbohydrates like pasta, baked goods, bread, etc.
- Onset of symptoms can range from early fall to early spring and usually subside during the summer
Who is at Risk?
Females are more likely than males to get depressed during the winter. Those people who live farther from the equator in colder climates are more susceptible as well. If you have a history of depression or a family trait, you may also be more likely. Since it tends to occur in those not getting enough sunlight, seniors who are housebound may be particularly vulnerable.
What You Can Do About S.A.D.
See Your Doctor – who may suggest or prescribe:
- Anti-depressant medication. While this may be very effective, it may also have unwanted side-effects.
- “Light Therapy” - which involves purchasing a light box. The quality of artificial sunlight products varies tremendously and there are some people who should not use it if they are on certain medications or have certain diseases.
- Nutritional, Hormonal, or Herbal Supplements. Some of these supplements may include Melatonin, Vitamin D, St. John’s Wort, etc. Not all of these are safe to take with certain medications and may interfere with other chronic diseases, so make sure you check with a physician before including any over-the-counter remedies.
Self-help may be effective and includes:
- Getting more sunlight! Take at least a 10 minute walk outside every day – especially in the morning sun.
- Brighten Up! If you or a loved one cannot go out, sit near bright windows as much as possible.
- Exercise. Exercise has proven to be almost as effective (or even more effective in some ) as medication in relieving the symptoms of depression. It is also excellent for your body in so many other ways that there is no excuse to not do what you can. You can purchase DVDs for chair exercises and download tips here from the University of Georgia.
- Eat Well: Vitamin D rich foods include fortified milk, fish like tuna and salmon, mushrooms, and eggs. Make sure you also eat foods high in other vitamins such as dark green leafy vegetables, fruit, and whole grains.
- Have some Fun! Winter is a hard time to find fun things to do sometimes. Anything you can do to socialize, see a movie, laugh a little will help fight depression. If your loved one is depressed, arranging visitors may help. Small outings or mini-trips to regional attractions are also a way to break up the monotony of a long winter.
- Take a vacation or trip to a warmer location if you can. This can really ease the seasonal effect.
Avoiding Caregiver Isolation
Taking Care of the Caregiver
Depression Test for Screening at Home