Henry Emmons, MD
Seasonal affective disorder... in the summer?
Most of us in the far north live for summer. After a long winter (and potentially a long quarantine!), we just want to be outdoors, stay up later, be more active—pack in all the things we love that we’ve felt deprived of for nearly half of the year (read about SAD in the winter here.), but for a minority of people it’s the anticipation of summer, not winter, that gives them a feeling of dread.
We tend to associate Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) with winter, when the days are short and so is our energy supply. You’re probably familiar with what it looks and feels like: Lethargy; sluggishness; struggling to get out of bed in the morning; sleeping too much; and usually feeling depressed, emotionally flat, or both.
SAD involves recurring episodes of major depression that happen at the same time of year for at least two years. For 10% of people with SAD, that time of year is the summer. There is most likely a genetic component to this, and sometimes there is a family history of bipolar spectrum disorder.
Like winter depression, summer SAD is believed to involve at least two crucial mood hormones: Melatonin and serotonin. Melatonin is the body’s timekeeper, while serotonin soothes and protects us. They are closely linked to one another, so when one of them is dysregulated, often the other one is, too.
Unlike winter depression, the symptoms often show up very differently, looking much more like what I call an “agitated depression.” The mood is often irritable or agitated, and a tendency toward being highly critical and impatient. Rather than sleeping too much, there is often insomnia, and instead of overeating and gaining weight, there is often weight loss. Unfortunately, there is more likely to be suicidal thoughts with summer depression.
What can you do about summer SAD? As with the winter version, the best treatment is prevention, but that may be a little trickier to do. You can’t simply add exercise and bright light therapy, as we do in the fall/winter—the return of light may in fact be part of the problem.
I suggest folks I work with to use our protocol for an “agitated mood,” here's more detailed information about caring for an agitated mood.
Here are some additional suggestions for soothing agitation:
Keeping a good sleep routine may be the key for preventing summer SAD. Stick with a reasonable bedtime even during the longest days. Set aside 30-45 minutes for a relaxed bedtime routine. Set the lights low, turn off any devices, read a story, or take a cool shower or bath. It’s crucial to keep your bedroom dark and, if possible, cool. You get more deep sleep with the temperature at around 68. You may not need it quite that cool, but if it’s too hot to open the windows and you don’t have central air, consider getting a room air conditioner in the bedroom.
The diet should be lighter and cooling, with lots of fresh, high water-containing fruits and vegetables. Eat modest amounts of protein and minimize spicy foods and greasy foods (with an occasional barbeque just for fun).
Download the complete the guide of soothing foods we recommend at Natural Mental Health here.>>>
Regular exercise is helpful for summer SAD, too, but be careful that it isn’t during the heat of the day. Swimming and other water sports are ideal during the summer—go to the pool like you did as a kid! Being in nature (especially near water) and with others is a plus. Consider paddling, walking, and easy biking.
Safe, inexpensive and surprisingly effective, aromatherapy is an underutilized resource for natural mental health. Try our Soothing Aromatherapy Blend or, if you need a mood booster, the Uplifting Aromatherapy Blend.
Those with agitated moods should be careful with prescription antidepressants, which can aggravate the agitation. Likewise, even natural therapies like SAM-e or 5HTP can sometimes be overstimulating, making agitation worse. I often suggest Stress Support to those I work with, even if they don’t feel particularly stressed, because it has herbs and amino acids that help tone down the nervous system and often help with sleep. Relax Powder, with magnesium l-threonate, is a great sidekick, calming both the brain and muscles and also helping support healthy levels of both melatonin and serotonin. For those who feel more depressed and need additional mood support, I find Soothed Mood to be a good option. It does contain some 5HTP, but it is in a much smaller amount and is balanced by other calming ingredients like GABA, inositol and l-theanine.
Want a self-care technique that costs nothing and takes little time? Try left nostril breathing. Inhale through the left nostril and exhale through the right, covering the other side with your thumb or forefinger. Do this for just a few minutes, or until you feel more balanced and less stressed.
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