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Heated Debate: Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder

By Martha Michael

Summer is here and many Americans look forward to a season of pool parties and lightning bugs. Those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder also look forward to months of relief from the winter doldrums. But does the prospect of warmer temperatures mean everyone’s happy?

Most of us think SAD is a disorder only appearing in the winter months, when there’s less sun and there’s a general hardship associated with colder weather. But there are actually two types -- winter SAD and summer SAD -- though the latter is more rare.

Hot Debate

Olga Khazan talks about some of the theories behind Summer SAD in an article in The Atlantic entitled “When Summer is Depressing.”

She says that Thomas Wehr, National Institute of Mental Health scientist emeritus, offers a rather uncomplicated explanation: It’s the heat. He cites research showing that people experiencing summer SAD improve when their body temperatures are cooled. When they return to sunny weather their depression returns.

Another theory is that allergies are responsible for summer SAD. Some patients claim a drop in mood when pollen levels are high.

Khazan cites an opinion by Alfred Lewy, a professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University, who blames long days and lack of sleep with disruption of one’s circadian rhythm. In an interview with NBC News he says he treats summertime SAD patients by suggesting they get early-morning sun and take melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep.

The melatonin level is altered by too much sunlight, says Jordan Gaines Lewis in an article in Psychology Today.

“Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant and free radical scavenger that serves to protect the brain,” Lewis says. “Melatonin’s immediate precursor is the neurotransmitter serotonin, a major player in regulating mood. By reducing melatonin production, SAD increases the risk for depression and other mood disorders.”

Hot vs. Cold

Besides the obvious, there are differences between the two disorders. Individuals with summer SAD have reported feeling manic, while those with winter SAD lack energy. Khazan’s article shares the opinion of psychologist Jason Goldman, who says those with winter SAD sleep too much and tend to gain weight, while those with summer SAD suffer from insomnia and have little appetite.

A big problem for those with summer SAD, Lewis points out, is how little research is devoted to it, as opposed to winter SAD. Sometimes these patients are misdiagnosed, saddled with labels that sometimes include:

  • Major depression
  • Dysthymia
  • Anxiety disorders

Look for a pattern to distinguish it from a generalized mood disorder. Then you can seek appropriate treatment, because what you want to see return every summer is a season of lightning bugs, not the storms of an overcast mood.


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