Picnics at the beach.
Afternoons by the pool.
Three months of summer bliss.
For many people, the summer months are the most difficult. In fact, 10 percent of those diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder suffer symptoms at the brightest time of the year. The summer’s brutal heat, bright light, and long days can contribute to depression for the opposite reasons that the winter does. Like typical SAD, the change of light can affect a person’s circadium rhythm, which may disturb overall health and sleep patterns. But you don’t need to suffer from summer SAD to slog through the hot days. A substantial part of the population does just that in June, July, and August. Here are a few ways to manage the summer blues.
When you consider that brain tissue is 85 percent water and our bodies are 70 percent water, it’s easier to understand why hydrating yourself is so important. Dehydration causes a shortage oftryptophan, an important amino acid that is converted to serotonin in the brain. Our bodies can’t detoxify when there is a shortage of water, so tryptophan isn’t distributed to the necessary parts of the brain. Low levels of amino acids in the body can contribute to depression, anxiety, and irritability.
Even mild dehydration—approximately 1.5 percent loss in normal water volume — can affect our moods and impair our concentration. According to two recent studies at the University of Connecticut’s Human Performance Laboratory, it didn’t matter if a person walked for 40 minutes on a treadmill or was at rest. The negative effects of dehydration were the same.
2. Stay away from diet soda
It’s easy to grab a Diet Coke when you feel hot and thirsty, but a recent study by the National Institute of Health showed that people who drink four cans or more of diet soda daily are about 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression than people who don’t drink soda. Coffee drinkers are about 10 percent less likely to develop depression than people who don’t drink coffee. People with mood disorders are especially sensitive to the superficial sweeter aspartame in most diet sodas. In fact, a 1993 study conducted by Ralph Walton, M.D., of Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine found that there was a significant difference between aspartame and placebo in both number and severity of symptoms for people with a history of depression, but not so for persons with no history of a mood disorder.
3. Eat ice-cream!
Research published in the journal “Nature Neuroscience” explored the relationship between comfort food and mood. While it didn’t state that eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s is equivalent to popping a Prozac, studies did discover that the brain chemical that motivates us to eat, called ghrelin, can act like a kind of antidepressant. Ghrelin rises before meals and is associated with feelings of hunger. In an essay for ABC News, James Potash, M.D., co-director of the Mood Disorder Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, explains this formulation: Stress gets us upset and feeling low. Ghrelin picks us back up some, and also makes us hungrier, and so we eat ice cream. And then we associate the ice cream with feeling better. The ice cream, then, isn’t the antidepressant. But there is a strong enough connection here that I say, eat up!
4. Create some structure
We, humans, thrive on structure. Some of us—like those with a history of depression or anxiety–more so than others. For that subgroup, structure is essential for sanity. Summer destroys most of our schedules, especially if you have little kids out of school, young adults home for the summer, or other persons in your house who have invited themselves to live with you for three months. Therefore, you have to literally force some structure into your day. I keep my alarm set to the same hour I wake up during the year and swim at 6 a.m. even though the house is sleeping in. I have created a routine—working out of a certain coffee shop on Mondays and Wednesdays, where I attempt to crank out one piece before lunch. I avoid my home as much as I can, because I know I will get dragged into tasks that will distract me from my responsibilities and interrupt my schedule. I turn into a rigid, unlikeable person.
5. Squeeze in some leisure
If you’re like me, you struggle with lying in a hammock. I can’t turn off my mind, which is worried about an average of three things all the time. I guess you could call me “relaxation challenged.” I need to enroll in relaxation school, where I can learn how to sway a hammock. Back and forth. Back and forth. A little bit of leisure is as important as eight hours of sleep or omega 3 fatty acids in maintaining sanity and regulating mood. When done regularly, leisure combats stress and boosts our immune systems. When Salvatore R. Maddi studied the effects of stress on 2,000 people, there was a population that was more protected from the internal symptoms of stress, including depression and anxiety. What did the people in this group have in common? The primary distinguishing feature was four to six hours of “meaningful activity.”