Feeling a little down and tired these days? Wondering if it’s post-holiday blues or the winter-time blahs? Perhaps you’re one of the hundreds experiencing fatigue, irritability, and disrupted sleep in the dark days of winter.

Cloudy days and long dark nights mess with our body’s circadian rhythms causing interrupted sleep. Sleep deprivation is dangerous for all of us but especially for caregivers. It impairs memory, judgement, immune function, the ability to regulate emotions, and is linked to heart attacks and stroke. Disrupted sleep leads to depression.

Insomnia and sleep disorders are also common for those living with dementia and, consequently, their caregivers. Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia affect various processes in the brain, including circadian rhythms. The disrupted internal clock can lead to “sundowning.” Studies show sundowning is often more prevalent in winter months.

If you’ve noticed any of the above symptoms in yourself or an elderly loved one, you could both be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a type of depression caused by seasonal changes in sunlight. Your circadian rhythms or internal biological clock could be out of sync.

To reset your biological clock so you can get the sleep you need, try these tips:

Get enough sun.

The ultraviolet rays of sunshine are absorbed through the skin causing our bodies to make the hormone Vitamin D. Research shows Vitamin D likely helps regulate our internal clocks because of its role in producing serotonin.

Serotonin is used in making the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is the chemical that makes us sleepy. Serotonin levels tend to drop to their lowest during the winter.

This cycle of hormone production can get broken in any number of ways. But 30 minutes of morning sun may be all that’s needed to keep winter blues at bay.

Can’t get enough sun?

  • Take Vitamin D supplements or Cod Liver Oil.
  • Try taking Melatonin to reset your sleep rhythm. Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the pineal gland at night. It’s the chemical that cues our brain that it’s time for sleep.
  • Use a light therapy box. A light therapy box mimics outdoor light. It can lift your mood, relieve symptoms of SAD, and help reset your circadian rhythm.

Generally, the light box should produce 10,000 lux of light with very little UV. Light boxes should be used within the first hour of waking up in the morning for only 20 – 30 minutes.

Light boxes are designed to be safe and effective, but they aren't approved or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Talk With Your Doctor First

It’s always best to talk with your health care provider if you suspect depression or dementia. Get your serotonin, melatonin, and Vitamin D levels tested. Make sure light therapy is safe for you or your loved one. Certain mental health disorders and eye diseases should avoid light therapy.

The above “therapies” may be safe and effective for most of us. But caution is advised when taking any over-the-counter medications and herbal remedies. Side-effects, drug interactions, and pre-existing health conditions may make these remedies unsafe.

Other Resources

Be sure to check out our Resources Page for links to more information on dementia and related topics.

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