Winter Blues in the Summer

Judith Wurtman Health Guide
  • Is anyone enjoying good summer weather? Much of the country is dealing with outrageously high temperatures, while other parts are getting so many downpours arks are being built in backyards. My own section, New England, has declared the sun an endangered species. One consequence is that the typical euphoria that comes with sunny, warm (not hot) cloudless days has been replaced with feelings of gloom, dullness and fatigue.

     

    The effect of weather on mood and energy levels was apparent last week when we had one day of perfect June weather and everyone was outside, smiling. Then the rain moved in, again, and people's moods descended like a fog.

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    "I am dragging myself around as if I just climbed Mt. Everest without oxygen," a friend told me. "I can't wake up, my body feels leaden and my mind is cloudy. I might as well go home from work by 4 because my brain starts to shut down. All I think about is going home, eating lots of cookies and then going to bed."

     

    The combination of fatigue, craving for sweets and fuzzy thinking is often associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as the winter blues. It is believed that lack of sunlight affects various brain chemicals and the hormone melatonin, resulting in depressed mood, excessive tiredness, increased appetite and lack of interest in work and social activities.  This mood/energy/appetite syndrome usually begins around mid-fall and vanishes by mid-spring because of the longer days of sunshine. Indeed, most people await the sunshine of spring and summer to get back into exercising, going on diets and engaging in social activities because they feel so good.

     

    Not this year. There is little incentive to enjoy the sun when its heat is melting sidewalks. And when the number of sunny days during the past month can be counted on one hand, winter blues are rapidly becoming summer blues.

     

    Fighting the summer blues is a little easier than overcoming the same changes in mood and energy during the winter because we don't have the added burden of ice, snow, wintery winds and bulky clothing.

     

    The most effective way of waking up your mind, and improving your mood, is to exercise. This suggestion may sound impossible to carry out because of the fatigue and sleepiness that descends late in the afternoon. But vigorous activity, late in the afternoon when your body is looking for a bed, will wake you up again. It doesn't take much to do this. The first five minutes of any activity that increases your blood flow will clear the cobwebs from your mind and make your muscles realize that they have some energy left in them. And once you begin, you will feel better and better. If the heat makes it impossible to exercise outside, consider getting a summer membership in an air-conditioned gym. Or exercise early in the morning when it is light but not yet hot or in the evening when it is still light outside.

     

    Food may also fight the summer blues or exacerbate them. Avoid fatty foods, even though some of them, like fried clams and ice cream cones, are summer treats. Eating fat will add to your fatigue, making it even harder to move your body to work off the calories. Be careful of your alcohol intake; it may also exacerbate your bad mood. If drinking disrupts your sleep you will be even more tired the next day. Do take advantage of the wider variety of fruits and vegetables, You can eat salads or cold vegetable-based soups like gazpacho or grilled vegetables (especially if the heat or rain don't prevent you from using the outdoor grill) every day. Eating locally grown produce like tomatoes or strawberries may even brighten your mood because they taste so good and are so colorful.

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    Carbohydrates work to reverse the down-in-the-dumps mood of winter depression and will do the same during the summer. Serotonin, the feel-good chemical in your brain, will be made only when you eat starchy or sweet carbohydrates. What better way to increase this vital brain chemical than with the early summer offerings of tiny new potatoes cooked with fresh dill, steamed sweet peas with mint leaves or newly-picked sweet corn?

     

    Who knows? After a repast like that, the hot sun or incessant rain may not seem so bad after all. 

Published On: July 01, 2009