Seasonal Affective Disorder: The Real "Summertime Blues"

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Affecting around five percent of Americans, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a debilitating depression affecting sufferers in the winter months. In addition to feeling melancholy, people with SAD have increased appetite and can have a hard time getting out of bed. For people with SAD, nothing cheers them up like the spring and summer months when their symptoms go away. But for a smaller group of Americans with summer SAD, or Reverse SAD, the opposite is true.

Summer SAD affects less than one percent of the U.S. population, about two thirds being women, and it is more prevalent in areas where summer temperatures are highest. Reports show the South has the highest proportion of people with summer SAD and the incidences of the disorder rises as the latitude diminishes. Summer SAD also may have a genetic component; more than two thirds of people with SAD have a relative with a major mood disorder.

People with summer SAD can suffer from multiple symptoms, the first being an inability to cope with the heat. Many people with summer SAD are unable to brave the outdoors and instead stay inside in air conditioned rooms. It is not uncommon for many people with summer SAD to feel as if they’re being “attacked by the sun.” People with extreme cases feel like the sun’s rays are piercing their skin so they avoid being outside during the day at all costs.

Some sufferers have such a hard time they are forced to move to a cooler climate or sleep with bottles of frozen ice water in their bed. For others, the symptoms more closely mirror that of major depression. Feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in activities, insomnia, irritability, poor appetite and weight loss are all common symptoms of summer SAD. These symptoms begin to let up in early October and once again rear their head around the onset of spring.

Just as the symptoms of summer and winter SAD appear to be exact opposites, the causes appear to be different as well. Winter SAD seems to be linked to increases in the production of melatonin, set off by decreased light. The causes of summer are less clear. Researchers are unsure whether it is too much light or the external temperature which may be the cause. People with summer SAD are most often treated by their doctors with antidepressant medications or, if they’ve already been prescribed them, the doctor may raise the dosage during spring/summer months. Antidepressant medications help to alleviate symptoms of summer SAD by altering the levels of certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Because it may take a few weeks for the course of medications to kick in, some doctors may start with the antidepressants as early as late winter.

If you think you may have summer SAD, in addition to getting treatment from your doctor, there are lifestyle changes that can help make the summer months more bearable. Just like with clinical depression, a healthy diet, plenty of exercise (even if it’s indoors) and meetings with a counselor can be very effective. When it comes to managing body temperature, cold showers and air-conditioned environments can help relieve some discomfort as well. The summer should be a time of celebration, if you feel like you have summer SAD contact your doctor and make this summer one to remember.