By Mary Frugoli, the Caregiver Homes Branch Manager for the South Shore area in Mass.
During the winter do you sleep later? Do you lose interest in things your usually enjoy? Feel a little sluggish? If you are a caregiver, have you noticed these things in someone you are caring for? If either of you feel a touch of the 'winter blues' you may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). For most people, SAD symptoms begin in the fall as the days become shorter and they are exposed to less sunlight, symptoms generally begin to improve in April with the return to Daylight Savings Time.
Symptoms & Causes of SAD
Typical symptoms include sleeping too much; low energy; feeling of sadness or anxiety, avoiding activities that were previously enjoyed; increased hunger – especially craving high carbohydrate foods; and weight gain.
While there is no specific cause, there are certain factors that can make some people more at risk. One factor is where you live. Circadian Rhythm (your body clock) is thrown off when there is a change in the hours of light. People living in a Northern state where the winters are long, days short, often forcing them inside due to amounts of snow and cold, are more at risk than a person living in sunny Arizona. In addition to shorter days, people living in northern climates may have a decrease in their daily exercise due to weather conditions. It has been well documented that exercise can boost serotonin levels, and help improve mood. Women are more predisposed than men to SAD, but when men are affected it often results in more severe depression.
Caregivers often put their own health and emotions last, but it is important that they take care of their own needs. The care teams at Caregiver Homes are here to support caregivers, so we encourage them to use us as a resource and a sounding board. Other forms of help are available, and it is important that you talk to your health care professional if you feel that you may be suffering from SAD. Your doctor may do blood tests to be sure you are not suffering from a viral infection or another medical issue. In addition, your doctor will want to rule out a more serious episode of clinical depression.
Treatments for SAD
Light therapy is the most common treatment and there are two types: First, "Light Box" is a special light which is used daily. The individual sits about two to three feet away from the box for 20 to 30 minutes. It is suggested that the light be used first thing in the morning, and that the individual begins using the light box before symptoms occur in the fall. Second, "Dawn Stimulation" is a light which goes on in the individual's bedroom each morning. The light is soft initially, and becomes increasingly bright (mimicking the sunrise).
In addition, doctors recommend that people get some form of exercise daily, as this increases serotonin (mood enhancer) levels in the brain.
In some cases doctors may prescribe an antidepressant. If your depression worsens, or you have thoughts of harming yourself, contact your doctor immediately.