Summer SAD: Too much sunshine?

When you think of seasonal affective disorder, you might envision melancholy people holed up against a relentless downpour in the darkest chill of winter.

But the longer days of spring – and the lingering sunlight of brilliant Northwest summers – can trigger summer mania, a kind of winter blues in reverse.

In some people, the extended daylight hours awaken dormant circadian rhythms, with a resulting burst of energy that rivals, for impact, the deepest winter depressions.

Scientists also find that the seasons affect the biological balance of the natural hormone melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle, and the brain chemical serotonin, which contributes to feelings of contentment.

Symptoms of spring and summer seasonal depression include anxiety, insomnia, irritability, agitation, poor appetite, weight loss and increased sex drive, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“There is a summer hypomania, but there’s not as much research (on it),” says Dr. Tamar Lieb, a naturopath and midwife with an office in Ferndale. “It’s more common in places where there’s a stark difference between sunlight and night.”

Dr. Henry Levine, a psychiatrist who practices in Bellingham, says the sweltering heat of summer in warmer climates can cause SAD-like symptoms, just as extended summer daylight in the northern latitudes can confuse the body’s natural clock.

“There are two different aspects to the summertime SAD,” Levine says. “Closer to the equator, there are people who get depressed when it’s hot, but it just doesn’t get that hot around here. The other kind, that’s based on light, that’s very common around here.”

Summer hypomania is most prevalent among people who suffer bipolar disorder, says Levine, who was a primary care physician on Lummi Reservation in the 1970s. He completed training in psychiatry at the University of North Carolina and returned to Whatcom County in 1979.

But Levine says people can suffer milder symptoms of summer SAD without being bipolar.

“It is a matter of degrees,” he says.

Lieb, who moved to Whatcom County from Seattle about a year ago, studied naturopathic medicine at Bastyr University in Kenmore. She has lectured locally on SAD.

“A large number of the people that I encounter … are somewhat affected by the weather and seasonal changes,” she says. “Different people experience the seasons differently.”

SAD isn’t considered its own psychological disorder, Lieb says. Rather, it’s a subset of more serious kinds of depression, such as bipolar disorder. Even though many people may feel blue from time to time in winter – or even in summer – it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re clinically depressed, she says.

“It’s important to realize that, as with any mood disorder, there’s a spectrum,” she says.

For mild SAD, Lieb suggests keeping stable routines appropriate to the season – such as opening window shades during the day and leaving lights on during winter. Conversely, it helps to draw the shades when twilight lingers near bedtime in the summer, a trick that’s especially good with small children who have early bedtimes.

Other tips include getting plenty of exercise and avoiding television and caffeinated beverages.

“Whatever works for them to help calm their energy down,” Lieb says.

Levine agrees. He also suggests soft music and low-stress pursuits in the evening.

“Those people need to start earlier in the evening managing their activity,” he says. “Reading a book rather than running later at night; drawing the shades, particularly on the west side of the house. All the things that one would normally do to try to settle down become more important.”

If depression persists or worsens, however, both Lieb and Levine suggest a visit to a mental-health professional.

“It’s always a good thing to talk to someone proactively,” Lieb says.


Fall & Winter

  • Depression
  • Hopelessness
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of energy
  • Heavy, “leaden” feeling in arms or legs
  • Social withdrawal
  • Oversleeping
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating

Spring & Summer

  • Anxiety
  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Weight loss
  • Poor appetite
  • Increased sex drive


Reach out for help if you feel down for days at a time and can’t seem to get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy. That’s particularly important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed, or if you feel hopeless, think about suicide or use alcohol or drugs for solace.


Draw shades and dim interior lights before bedtime.

Exercise earlier in the day.

Avoid caffeinated beverages.

Avoid TV at bedtime (try reading or listening to an audio book instead).

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