Way back in 1958, rockabilly artist Eddie Cochran came out with a hit lamenting “There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.” But – he’s wrong.
First of all, there is such a thing as summer seasonal depressive disorder (SAD) – most of us are familiar with the blues in the winter as the daylight hours shrink dramatically.
By August, many people may be feeling a bit blue due to relentless triple H – heat, haze, and humidity. Consecutive days of sunshine and still, heavy air can create a sense of monotony. However, many people feel the onset of summer SAD at the beginning of the season, like around Memorial Day. In fact, approximately 10% of individuals with SAD experience the condition in the summer. And the closer to the equator, the higher the number of incidence of summer SAD.
Similarly to winter SAD, summertime SAD (also called reverse seasonal affective disorder) hits at about the same time on the calendar each year. Winter SAD, as mentioned, is associated with fewer hours of natural light, and one thought about summer SAD is that there’s too much sunlight for those affected. Too much sunlight may alter melatonin production and those with summer SAD can be sensitive to this change. According to one expert, “summer SAD and winter SAD seem to be prevalent in areas that are particularly prone to warmer summers. In other words, people in the southern U.S. tend to experience summer SAD more so than those in the north (and vice versa).”
Excessive heat is, undeniably a causative factor, according to researchers in one study. They write, “We find that increasing temperatures significantly reduce well-being. Compared to average daily temperatures in the 50–60 °F range, temperatures above 70 °F reduce positive emotions (e.g. joy, happiness), increase negative emotions (e.g. stress, anger), and increase fatigue (feeling tired, low energy).”
And, writes psychology expert Jordan Gaines Lewis, PhD in Psychology Today, “Research also suggests that high temperatures might also play a role in reverse SAD. Notable differences between summer and winter SAD are that summer SAD individuals may typically feel manic, whereas those with winter SAD lack energy. Georgetown University psychiatrist and professor Norman Rosenthal, who first described and coined the term Seasonal Affective Disorder, notes that the drop in temperature can be calming for those people, who might otherwise find the summer heat oppressive and agitating.”
According to another source, when you are lacking quality sleep at night during the summer, your body releases more cortisol, which can contribute to low mood and exacerbate emotional sensitivity. Further, the precursor to melatonin is serotonin, the “feel good” neurochemical. When melatonin production is reduced, so is serotonin, which can increase summer SAD.
Situations can also cause summer blues, although this isn’t technically SAD. For many people (especially parents), summer can be overwhelming, trying to keep kids occupied and safe while working and managing the household. Planning and organizing family vacations can be stressful as well.
How to Reduce Summer SAD
Summertime is supposed to be fun – and we all know it. Poolside, beachside, backyard barbeques, biking, riding, playing games on the lawn. If you find yourself susceptible to summer SAD, there are several things you can do to reduce the severity of the symptoms and begin to feel a heightened sense of enjoyment.
Cool down with hydration – cold water, homemade teas and lemonades. Cut down on sugars as they don’t quench your thirst. Stay indoors during the height of the day (between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm in midsummer) when the sun beats down most intensely. When indoors, do productive things such as cleaning or organizing closets – this will increase your sense of satisfaction and keep you moving and occupied. Diet-wise, ditch the heavy carbs (they aren’t good for you anyway), and consume the bounty of fresh, local produce along with high-protein sources (meat fish, poultry).
Supplements can help too, especially probiotics!
Supplements to Fight Summer SAD
St. John’s Wort: This herb (Hypericum perforatum) is a popular botanical supplement consumed to modulate feelings of low mood. One review of several studies using this herb in cases of depression found that for mild and moderate depression it is superior to placebo in improving depression symptoms and that it is not significantly different from antidepressant medication. Another meta-analysis of 27 clinical trials involving 3808 individuals found that compared to the pharmaceutical class of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), St. Johns wort supplementation was comparable in efficacy in those with mild to moderate depression.
GABA: The neurotransmitter (and amino acid) gamma amino butyric acid has been widely researched for its brain-, mood- and mental-energy support benefits. Authors of one review succinctly observed, “Low GABA function is proposed to be an inherited biological marker of vulnerability for development of mood disorders.”
When GABA attaches to a GABA receptor, it encourages the feeling of calm, reducing anxiety, fear and stress. GABA is found in many foods and teas, so making homemade ice tea may also help to combat the summertime blues.
Probiotics: The wide world of beneficial bacteria has some standouts that help promote healthy mood, which is a key goal in managing summer SAD. Lactic acid bacteria is known to encourage production of GABA.
Numerous Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains have been studied to investigate effects on mental health and appear to exert the most promising effects.
A team of researchers analyzed the microbiota composition in mice subject to stressors that induced depression; and found that loss of Lactobacillus species was a critical factor in the development of depression symptoms. When given Lactobacillus in food, depression symptoms lessened. They write firmly, “"A single strain of Lactobacillus is able to influence mood."
The researchers further found that the amount of Lactobacillus in the gut affects the level of kynurenine, a metabolite in the blood that has been shown to accelerate depression. When Lactobacillus was reduced in the gut, the levels of kynurenine increased, causing the symptoms of depression to develop.
And there’s more evidence linking beneficial gut bacteria to mood stabilization, which would dramatically reduce summer SAD.
Recently, the first population-level study on the link between gut bacteria and mental health identifies specific gut bacteria linked to depression and provides evidence that a wide range of gut bacteria can produce neuroactive compounds. In this research, the team analyzed data from individuals participating in the Flemish Gut Flora Project and found that two genera – Coprococcus and Dialister – were consistently low in people with depression.
There’s no stigma in being an individual with summer SAD – the first step is recognizing that low mood and other symptoms tend to set in. It’s different with everyone; while some feel it early on in the season, others get it as the season becomes more and more monotonous. Helping yourself to reduce the symptoms is largely intuitive (ie, staying hydrated, staying indoors during the mid-day heat). And proper diet and supplementation can help – especially taking probiotics!