Don't Let the Springtime Blues Get You Down

The end of winter means longer, sunnier days, warm weather, and plenty of opportunities to get outside. It also means the end of seasonal affective disorder ("SAD")... At least, that's what a lot of folks think...

For years, we've written about why people tend to get the winter blues and have shared some simple ways to combat them. Depression in the winter often stems from the lack of sunshine we get, flus and colds going around, and the stress associated with the holidays.

But it turns out, this disorder can persist into the spring. Depression in the spring and summertime is often called "reverse SAD." Common symptoms include trouble sleeping, anxiety, lack of interest in activities, and weight loss.

About 10% of people who experience SAD do so in warmer months. In a 2012 review of studies from 1979 to 2011, the National Institute of Mental Health found that suicide rates in the U.S. typically peak from late spring through the summer.

Researchers aren't sure of the exact cause of reverse SAD, but there are some likely factors associated with increases in depression during the spring.

One problem is a lack of sleep... The extra hours of sunlight in the spring and summer can cause our bodies to produce too much melatonin.

Melatonin is a hormone that promotes sleep and regulates our circadian rhythms – the body's 24-hour sleep/wake cycle. In the evening, when it's nearing time to sleep, the body increases its production of melatonin to make us drowsy. But when the sun doesn't go down until nearly 9 p.m., that light is keeping our bodies awake, making it harder to fall asleep.

A 2022 study found folks with insomnia are 70% more likely to think they have memory problems than folks without insomnia. This is what's known as "subjective memory" – or how you think about your memory.

Now, this may not sound like a big deal, but studies show that subjective memory impairment is associated with increased anxiety and depression...

Another big factor that can cause reverse SAD is the heat. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry last year looked at emergency-room visits from 2010 to 2019. Researchers found that the hotter the temperatures, the more emergency-room visits occurred for mental-health issues like stress, anxiety, and self-harm.

Experts aren't sure why outdoor heat can increase mental-health disorders. But one belief is that hotter temperatures increase our bodies' production of cortisol. Remember, cortisol is our stress hormone. So higher levels mean more stress.

But you don't have to spend your summer stressed out...

Two Ways to Battle Reverse SAD

1. Make sleep a priority.

The longer days this time of year mean more hours of sunlight. The shift may be subtle, but the extra daylight can disrupt our natural circadian rhythm, particularly in the hypothalamus.

Light-blocking curtains keep sunlight from triggering episodes of wakefulness. Many thicker curtains not only block light but also include thermal panels to help keep the heat out as well.

Be sure not to interrupt your sleep with any kind of light. If you need to use the bathroom during the night, don't turn on any lights. Instead, have a low-light night light plugged in to guide your way.

One major cause of insomnia as temperatures outside rise is problems with the body's internal "thermostat."

The hypothalamus is the region of your brain that secretes hormones that effectively lower your core body temperature and promote sleep. This thermostat relies on your circadian rhythm and cues from your environment.

Every person has a slightly different comfort range, but typically a room temperature between 60 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit is best for sleeping. Many studies link the body's temperature regulation with sleep patterns, which is why you become sleepy in colder temperatures.

One of the most crucial parts of the sleep cycle – rapid-eye movement ("REM") sleep – can suffer during hotter temperatures. That's because during REM sleep, your body loses its ability to sweat and shiver. If the room is too warm, your body temperature will rise to match it, bringing you back to a point of almost wakefulness. If it's too hot, you can even wake up completely, ruining the quality of your sleep.

So turn down the thermostat before you go to bed. And buy light-blocking curtains for your bedroom to keep sunlight from triggering episodes of wakefulness.

Finally, use a ceiling fan to circulate the air. It won't lower the temperature of the room, but the air movement will help sweat evaporate from your skin, helping you cool down. You can also use fans to help circulate air from an air conditioner, allowing you to reduce the settings on the unit and save on energy costs.

2. Get some exercise outdoors (but pace yourself).

When it's hot and humid outside, it's tough to convince yourself to exercise. But exercise causes the body to produce and make use of a number of elements that are all associated with feeling good.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger for neurons) that is made in the brain and is released when you're expecting a reward. Dopamine contributes to feelings of alertness, focus, motivation, and happiness. A flood of dopamine can even make you feel euphoric.

Research tells us that regular exercise can increase our dopamine levels. A 2014 study measured the blood levels of dopamine in 104 men aged 20 to 50 before and after three months of completing a daily one-hour yoga practice. A significant increase in dopamine was detected in the participants aged 20 to 39 after three months of yoga practice.

And if you're exercising outside, you'll see even greater mental-health benefits... One study out of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health found an inverse relationship between being in "green space" areas and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. In other words, people who spent more time in gardens or parks reported fewer symptoms of mental-health issues.

There are some risks associated with exercising outside when it's hot, including heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and dehydration. But there are a few ways to keep yourself safe.

First, exercise during the cooler parts of the day – the morning or the evening. Slow your pace, like going for a walk instead of a jog. Make sure you're wearing lightweight and light-colored clothing. Also, always have cool water on hand. And on those really hot, humid summer days, keep your workout indoors.

If you start to feel down this time of year, start with our steps to help you feel more comfortable, sleep better, and reduce your stress levels as temperatures rise.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
May 9, 2023