Like the song says, “there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues” — at least for some people.
Surprisingly, not everyone welcomes the arrival of summer. Those who actually dread the long, hot, lazy summertime days may be suffering from SAD, or seasonal affective disorder.
SAD is best known as a major depressive disorder affecting about 5% of Americans during the winter months. When days are short, nights are long, and cold, wet weather keeps people indoors, the body produces less vitamin D, the so-called “sunshine vitamin,” whose deficiency has been shown to affect metabolism and mood.
Even fewer people are thought to be similarly depressed in summer. But while it may be unusual, summertime SAD really is a thing, says UCI Health psychiatrist Robert G. Bota, MD.
Different from wintertime blues
“In the winter, people with seasonal affective disorder have lower energy, they slow down and oversleep, they feel tired and listless during the daytime, they eat too much and gain weight,” explains Bota, who is also a professor of psychiatry at the UCI School of Medicine.
“But in the summertime, it’s pretty much the reverse. People get restless, agitated, have trouble sleeping and eating, they lose weight. Sometimes it gets so bad it can even lead to anxiety and anger.”
Whether SAD occurs in the winter or summer months, the depression — which can last for weeks or months — typically lifts and sufferers experience normal moods for the rest of the year.
To be diagnosed with SAD, the depression has to recur at least two consecutive seasons.
Sleep disruption a risk factor
“We don’t really know what causes SAD, but genetics is thought to be a major factor in causing depressive illness, whether it strikes seasonally or any time,” says Bota.
Some evidence suggests that too much sunlight, or the lack of it, disrupts the body’s circadian rhythms. Too much sun can reduce the body’s production of melatonin, which can wreak havoc on the sleep-wake cycle.
“Sleep — either too much or too little — is a very important factor in depression,” Bota explains. “If you have the genetic disposition, the stress from sleep problems may trigger depression.”
Other risk factors for experiencing SAD in the summer are:
- Family history
- Being female — women are four times more likely to experience it than men
- Geography — living closer to the equator increases risk
Treatment is effective and easy
“Treatment is effective and easy,” Bota says. “The best things you can do are to eat well, exercise and have meaningful relationships with people who make you feel like you matter.”
Beyond that, he recommends:
Be careful, however, to avoid anti-depressants and other medications that may help with wintertime blues because they may create anxiety in people grappling with summertime depression.
Light therapy has been shown to be effective in treating people who experience SAD in the winter. Bota agrees that the reverse analogy, spending more time in dark during the summer, is helpful.
Talk to your primary care doctor
Bota encourages people experiencing seasonal depression to discuss it with their primary care doctors, who can refer them for psychiatric care when necessary.
“SAD is a form of major depressive disorder that happens pretty much in a predictive pattern,” he says.
“Even though SAD may go away after several months, during those months people are suffering. It can make a big difference to diagnose and treat it.”