More than just the winter blues

The days get longer in January, but nowhere as quickly as many of us would like. This week we enter the meteorological “dead of winter,” the coldest part of winter. Here in New York, that’s usually from mid-January to mid-February.

You might start to feel sad this time of year, without being able to put a finger on why. The “winter blues” are common enough, but some people may have a type of depression that cycles with the seasons, peaking in the winter. It’s called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Why winter?

Winter brings colder weather, shorter days and longer periods of darkness which can bring symptoms of depression including loss of energy, changes in appetite and sleeping habits, irritability, and loss of interest in participating in social activities.


Treatment, pharmaceutical and otherwise

Like other forms of depression, SAD can be treated with antidepressant medications.  Because medications can take time to work, it is best to start treatment prior to the onset of symptoms each year. Talk therapy may help, either with or without antidepressants. A non-pharmaceutical option for treatment of SAD is light therapy. Bright light therapy utilizes a piece of equipment called a “light box,” which is a fluorescent lamp that emits a spectrum of light intended to simulate natural sunlight. It’s important to make certain the light box has a filter that blocks harmful UV rays, so the light does not cause any damage.


The vitamin connection

Low levels of vitamin D have been found in people with SAD.  It is unclear whether this is linked to SAD, but vitamin D deficiency is particularly dangerous for older adults. Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency are very subtle and can include muscle and bone pain, excessive fatigue, and depressed mood. Older adults are more at risk for being vitamin D deficient due to changes in diet which result in eliminating foods rich in vitamin D; additionally, aging bodies have more difficulty converting and absorbing vitamin D from foods. Older adults deficient in vitamin D are at increased risk for negative impacts on bone and heart health; increased risk of cognitive decline; heart disease, hypertension, cancer, diabetes, and decreased immune function.

You can obtain vitamin D by increasing intake of foods where vitamin D is naturally found such as: eating beef liver, egg yolks, cheeses, and fatty fish like salmon. You can also increase intake of vitamin D fortified foods including milk, yogurt, cereals, and juice. You can take a vitamin D supplement but should only do so if recommended by your physician.


Did you know?

Women are four times as likely as men to be diagnosed with SAD.

Vitamin D levels tend to drop during the winter months.

Certain medications, such as the anti-inflammatory prednisone, can inhibit the ability to produce and metabolize vitamin D.

Those who suffer from depression or bipolar disorder may see symptoms worsen with seasons changing.


Golden Living is prepared by the Dutchess County Office for the Aging, Todd N. Tancredi, Director. Email him at

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