The fall and winter seasons are best known for family gatherings, rich foods, gifts and joyous celebrations, but for some individuals, this time of year can bring unexplained fatigue, irritability, and sleep issues.
These depressive episodes are known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD commonly affects women more often than men, those that live at higher latitudes (farther away from the equator), and those who already struggle with mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder.
Although the specific causes of SAD are not known, it is speculated that adjustments to your biological clock can trigger symptoms. During the autumn and winter months, we receive less sunlight as days shorten and the nights become longer. Light affects our ability to regulate chemicals in the brain that control moods and sleep/wake patterns. This is why people who have difficulty falling asleep are discouraged from watching TV or using bright phone or computer screens before bed. A simple decrease in exposure to light can affect circadian rhythms and cause disruptive symptoms, especially when combined with other existing health issues and lifestyle factors.
Caregiving Can Affect Your Sleep Cycle and Mood
Family caregivers are under a great deal of stress and often suffer from poor sleep in order to meet their care recipients’ ever-changing needs. It can be especially difficult for dementia caregivers to get adequate rest if they are worried that their loved one may wander, which significantly increases their risk of falling or having an accident.
Even if they are able to get some shut-eye, it usually is not the quality sleep they need. Like new mothers, caregivers tend to be constantly “tuned in” just in case someone requires their assistance. Coupled with seasonal changes, the effects of caregiver stress and disrupted sleep can be debilitating.
Dementia Patients Experience Sleep and Behavioral Issues
Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia affect various processes in the brain, including circadian rhythms. Because of this, many individuals living with dementia experience sleep disorders and disturbances, especially as the condition progresses. Parkinson’s disease is often accompanied by similar symptoms as well.
One of AgingCare.com’s bloggers, Rick Phelps, was diagnosed in 2010 with early onset Alzheimer’s. He knows firsthand how difficult it can be for a person with this condition to get a good night’s sleep:
“I go to bed late, wake up at least once nightly, and then have to get up. When I get up, I sometimes stay up for hours, knowing that I cannot get back to sleep. There is nothing going on at 3 a.m., but I have to get out of bed. Lying there with my mind racing a hundred miles an hour just makes things worse. Sometimes I think when a patient gets up in the middle of the night, it isn't always to wander; they simply can't lay there any longer.”
Symptoms like Rick’s restlessness and insomnia are common for those living with dementia. Sleep deprivation can be especially dangerous for patients, though, since it can further impair their memory, judgement, immune function and ability to regulate emotions.
Another common effect that dementia has on circadian rhythms is called “sundowning.” Sundown syndrome occurs when a dementia patient (typically in the middle and advanced stages of the disease) becomes increasingly confused and agitated later on in the day as night falls. This disorientation can be extremely frustrating for both the patient and their caregiver.
Light Therapy Can Be a Lifesaver
If you or your loved one is having difficulty sleeping or regulating moods, a simple solution is available. Light therapy is a popular non-medication treatment for individuals experiencing disruptions in their biological rhythms and temperament.
A light therapy box is a special lamp-like device that is brighter than normal indoor lighting devices. It is meant to simulate natural light and minimize the effects of decreased sun exposure that many people experience during fall and winter. Most light therapy devices filter out ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths, which can be harmful to your skin and eyes. Be wary of those that lack this capability (especially if you are taking medications or have a condition that make you more sensitive to sunlight).
These devices are available without a prescription, but a psychiatrist or other health professional can recommend phototherapy and specific ways of utilizing these devices in order to maximize their benefit. Most people use a lightbox early each morning for anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour or two. The duration of exposure depends upon your unique situation and the intensity of your light box, which is measured in lux.
Indirect exposure is crucial to the success of this treatment because staring directly at the light will damage your eyes. Individuals utilizing this course of treatment typically watch TV, read, eat a meal or work during phototherapy sessions.
It is of utmost importance for caregivers to make their own health a priority even though their loved ones’ wellbeing often becomes their main focus. Complementing normal, everyday activities with light therapy may be just what you need to lift your spirits this winter season, minimize sundowning behaviors or overcome insomnia. Better sleep and more stable moods can easily improve your quality of life and that of your loved one.