Blue skies and sunshine, holidays and long evenings are just some reasons why so many of us enjoy the summer months and it’s not just in the UK either. Across the world, most people say they feel better with the sun on their backs. So why is it that Australia’s Gold Coast and California – two of the world’s sun-drenched playgrounds – are home to the most depressed people in the world?
The answer may surprise you – summer depression. Although many of us have heard about the ‘winter blues’, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), very few know of its summer counterpart, summer SAD or ‘reverse seasonal depression’. Even doctors are often unaware of its symptoms, which can be frustrating for the estimated 600,000 or so sufferers in the UK.
Many sufferers notice their mood seems to change for the worse when the clocks go forward but can’t work out why. Although less common than its winter counterpart, from which as many as one in four of us may suffer to some degree, summer SAD is no less disabling and in extreme cases can lead to crippling depression and even suicide.
So how can you tell if you could be suffering from summer SAD? Symptoms usually start in the early spring, and carry on until the clocks go back in autumn (some sufferers say they can ‘set their clocks by their symptoms’). They include reduced appetite, insomnia, agitation and restlessness as well as an increased sense of heat at night. A general feeling of being miserable for no obvious reason and an inability to enjoy previously pleasurable activities are also common.
What triggers summer SAD remains unclear but many researchers believe that the increased exposure to sunlight and rising temperature in summer are key causes. Genes may also play a part, as more than two thirds of people suffering from summer SAD have a relative with some form of mental illness.
Rising temperatures may affect the hypothalamus in the brain – the hormone control centre – which in turn alters our ability to cope with mental stress. Indeed studies have shown that sufferers not only tend to experience a significant temperature rise at night compared to non-sufferers, but also that their symptoms disappear when they are wrapped in cooling blankets. As soon as they go back into summer heat, however, their symptoms seem to return.
It is no coincidence either that the effects of heat can be similar to those of depression – loss of motivation, more sitting around and a greater tendency to sleep problems – so summer SAD may also simply be an extreme variation of the body’s normal response to heat.
The treatment for summer SAD is very different to its winter counterpart where artificial light is one of the key treatments.
Black it out
Use blackout curtains or blinds rather than ordinary curtains to help keep light out of the bedroom.
Open windows at night in the hot weather and get yourself a cooling fan for the bedroom.
Keep it dark
Try to avoid bright light by wearing sunglasses whenever possible.
Have frequent cooling showers when the weather is hot. Take ice-cold water bottles or cooling blankets to bed.
Exercise regularly as this can help boost the production of endorphins – nature’s ‘feel good hormones’.
See your GP
Ask your GP for a thyroid check – some studies suggest that people with summer SAD have a low thyroid function. The thyroid gland – situated at the Adams’ apple in the throat – regulates the metabolism of every cell in our body making it crucial to wellbeing.
Rob Hobson, Healthspan Head of Nutrition says “Food plays a role in our diet and certain foods can affect our moods.
Give yourself a lift with these healthy choices
- Keep energy up with slow-release wholegrains
- Stay hydrated with water and herbal teas
- Eat healthy fats from oily fish
- Pick proteins to protect your brain
- Certain vitamins and minerals have been associated with low mood when adequate amounts are not obtained in the diet so if you do not have a balanced diet it may be worth investing in a multivitamin and mineral supplement such as Healthspan MultiVitality 50 Plus.
About 10 per cent of people with SAD in the wintertime also get it in reverse in the summertime. Some studies have found that in countries near the equator, summer SAD is more common than winter SAD.
St. John’s Wort
This well-known and trusted supplement interacts with our endorphins to help improve mood and is clinically effective in treating mild to moderate depression. It is important to consult your doctor before taking it, especially if you are on other medication.
Many people with summer SAD have problems sleeping, which can make symptoms worse. Valerian is a traditional herbal remedy, which has been shown to help promote restful sleep and is popular with those who don’t want to opt for sleeping tablets from the GP.
5-HTP occurs naturally in the body and is a precursor to the very important brain messenger, serotonin, which is vital for maintaining a good mood and promoting refreshing sleep. The perfect combination for those who might be suffering with Summer SAD.
About Dr Roger Henderson
Dr Roger Henderson qualified as a doctor from St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London in 1985 and as a general practitioner in 1990. He is a popular lecturer and after-dinner motivational speaker on a wide range of health-related topics and his medical responsibilities include being the senior partner of a six doctor general practice in Shropshire, running a main surgery and two busy branch surgeries, and teaching both medical students and GP registrars. He sits on a number of health advisory boards both in the UK and globally, and has developed a reputation as highly respected chairman and moderator at international health conferences around the world.Last modified: June 9, 2021