Seasonal affective disorder doesn’t just happen in winter

June 13, 2022 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD
summer SAD

When they hear about seasonal affective disorder (SAD), most people think about the type of depression that occurs during the fall and winter when the days are darker and colder. While that’s the most common form of this mental health condition, it does have a summer counterpart. For people living with seasonal affective disorder that occurs in the summer, their symptoms, the timing of those symptoms, and the potential treatment options differ from those of winter SAD.

Also known as major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern, SAD is a form of depression that starts and ends at generally the same time each year, although not everyone experiences symptoms every year. The condition is more common in people who have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, ADHD, anxiety disorder, and eating disorders.

While the symptoms of winter pattern SAD include sleeping more than usual, craving high carbohydrate foods, gaining weight, and fatigue, people with summer pattern SAD experience different symptoms, including:

  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss

Although there is no definitive answer to the question of what causes either pattern of SAD, some research suggests an association between lower serotonin activity in the brain, the overproduction of melatonin, disruptions to circadian rhythms, and low levels of vitamin D and the disorder.

For people with summer pattern SAD, some studies have found an association between days with higher pollen levels and more pronounced depression symptoms. Another possible factor in summer onset SAD may be the effect of large amounts of sun on the body’s production of melatonin. More light dampens melatonin production, disrupting the body’s sleep and wake cycle.

Risk factors and treatment options for summer pattern SAD

Several factors can affect your risk of developing either type of SAD:

  • Gender: Women are more likely to be affected by SAD than men.
  • Family history: People who have a family member with either form of SAD are more likely to also have the disorder.
  • Bipolar disorder: People diagnosed with bipolar disorder may have an increased likelihood of experiencing the symptoms of SAD as the seasons change.

While the most common treatment approach for winter pattern SAD is light therapy, that treatment is not used for summer pattern SAD. In addition, far less research has been focused on summer pattern SAD, so there’s less evidence supporting potential treatments. Some of the treatments recommended include:

  • Antidepressant medications: Depending on how severe your symptoms are, your primary care physician or therapist may recommend antidepressants to help manage your symptoms.
  • Talk therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you build the skills to manage stress and developing coping behaviors.
  • Improving sleep: Because summer pattern SAD can cause insomnia, talk with your doctor about ways to improve your sleep, including creating a sleep-positive environment, practicing meditation or breathing exercises before bedtime, and limiting the use of electronic devices when getting ready to sleep.
  • Temperature and light control: Because heat and humidity may be linked to this type of depression, use air conditioning or fans to keep your home, and especially your bedroom, cooler. Lessening exposure to sunlight by using window shades may also be helpful.
  • Take part in regular exercise: Including at least 30 minutes of moderate activity in your day can help manage the symptoms of depression.

A health advisor can connect you with mental health specialists and help you build a strategy to manage seasonal affective disorder or any other mental health condition.