By Dr. Nora DeVoe, Ph.D.
Geriatric Care Manager


SAD? Don't Let the Winter Blues Take Hold

If you have been feeling sluggish and down when it's been cold and damp outside this winter season, your symptoms may signal seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a type of depression that is triggered by the seasons and manifests at about the same time every year. After the switch to daylight savings time, as darkness falls earlier, people with this type of depression start to feel moody, anxious, and lethargic. Usually SAD improves by spring, but until the days get brighter, there are self-help measures that can boost your mood.

SAD is thought to be related to the pineal gland, which is located deep in the center of the brain and acts like a light meter, receiving ambient light via the eyes. Depending on the amount of light received, the gland releases melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the body's day/night cycle by helping you go to sleep. During the darker evenings of wintertime, more melatonin is released, and this disrupts the day/night cycle. This may result in a noticeable change in your mood, a greater need for sleep, and even food cravings as you essentially go into a hibernation phase.

Women are at more risk of SAD, possibly because their pineal gland is more sensitive to changes in daylight hours. You are also more likely to develop SAD if you live above the 37th parallel, which cuts roughly midway through the contiguous United States from west to east. People who live above the 37th parallel also are more likely to have lower vitamin D levels, since vitamin D production in the skin is related to sunlight exposure, and vitamin D deficiency may contribute to the risk for depressive symptoms.

If you suffer from SAD, get as much natural sunlight as possible. If you can, get outside and take a walk during the day, especially in the morning. Several studies suggest that exposure to bright light in the morning helps the brain and body get ready for the new day. Indoors, position your favorite seat near a south-facing window if possible, and consider replacing the light bulbs in the rooms where you spend the most time with brighter full spectrum light bulbs. These are more expensive than regular light bulbs, but they provide a light similar to natural sunlight.

Light therapy is an effective treatment for SAD, so you may want to consider purchasing a light box. Available over the counter at many drugstores and online, these emit a glow that mimics outdoor light and is believed to cause chemical changes in the brain that lift mood. Select a model that is designed specifically for treating SAD, since these filter out most UV light, which can cause eye and skin damage. Another kind of light therapy is called a dawn stimulator and is activated by a timer. It is set up in your bedroom to mimic a natural sunrise, turning on early in the morning and gradually increasing in brightness so that you wake up naturally, without using an alarm.

Although it may be difficult to do during the winter months, maintaining your schedule and lifestyle will help to keep depression at bay. SAD is often associated with excessive sleeping, so try to stick to a regular pattern of sleep. If these measures do not relieve your depression, talk to your doctor. Certain medications have been shown to be effective in SAD, and some people may need a combination of light therapy, medication, and psychotherapy to treat their winter blues.

The good news is that this is temporary: Daylight Savings Time is March 10th and spring starts officially on March 20th!

Back to After 50 Home Page
Nora DeVoe is a Gerontologist specializing in Eldercare and Caregiver issues. She may be reached at (716) 667-7299.  

Dr. Nora is a ....