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March 20, 2022 7 min read

Seasonal depression, traditionally known as seasonal affective disorder, involves symptoms that appear and disappear as the seasons change.

The most recent edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)” officially recognizes this condition as major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern.

While winter is often associated with seasonal affective disorder, many people experience the reverse: mood changes that begin in spring and persist into summer. Some people refer to this type of depression as “reverse seasonal affective disorder.  There is definitely research that fails to mention that seasonal affective disorder can occur in any season, including spring.

Depression in spring is often exacerbated by environmental factors, such as excessive pollen in the air.

Since winter is thought to be linked to a lack of sunlight, you might wonder what triggers  a low, sad mood in the springtime. After all, the days are longer, new growth is blossoming, and there’s plenty of sunshine.

Why Can Spring Cause Seasonal Depression?

Although spring depression is less common than winter depression, and experts don’t know exactly what causes it.

There are a few potential theories include:

1. Increased daylight and warmth. If you don’t handle heat well, warmer days may bring discomfort, especially when they involve more hours of daylight. Extreme brightness and heat could potentially leave you feeling down and unmotivated and factor into increased restlessness and irritability.

The increase in sunlight can also disrupt circadian rhythms and your typical sleep-wake cycle may be disrupted by the increase in sunlight. This makes it more difficult to get the amount of sleep you need in order to optimize your health and well-being. Essentially, bright sunny days can leave your brain on high alert, making it difficult to relax when you need to wind down.

One of the symptoms of depression is a change in someone’s sleep habits.  It’s important to realize that insomnia, a condition where you regularly don’t get enough sleep, can also raise your chances of developing depression. [1]

2. Imbalances in brain chemicals. Your brain produces a number of different neurotransmitters, or chemicals messengers, that help regulate mood, emotions, and other important bodily processes.

It’s important that these neurotransmitters are in balance.

Having too much, or too little, in your system can disturb typical function and play a part in the development of mood and mental health symptoms. Research indicates that winter depression relates, in part, to a drop in serotonin — a chemical that’s typically produced after exposure to natural light. An increase in melatonin, another hormone linked to winter depression, can leave you feeling more tired and lethargic than usual.

Experts are also indicating that spring depression may follow the reverse pattern:

The issue stems from an increase in sunlight which cues your body to produce less melatonin, so you end up getting less sleep than you need. As noted above, this lack of sleep can contribute to, or worsen, symptoms of depression.

In addition, and concurrently, natural levels of serotonin in your body increase as a natural outcome of longer days and sunnier weather. While too little serotonin is linked to depression, too much could also contribute to mental health concerns, including social anxiety disorder. [2]

So, if you are a person who is acutely sensitive to these changes, a surplus of serotonin (not to mention the lack of sleep) could potentially contribute to feelings of irritability and restlessness, along with a drop in your mood. In light of all the above; it is still not totally clear what actually causes spring depression.

Suicide Rates by Month

It is a myth that suicide rates rise during the winter, especially around the holidays. The Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) at the University of Pennsylvania has found out that suicide rates are actually lowest from November to January.

The worst months of the year occur in the spring: April, May, and June are when suicide rates are highest. [3] 

It is not fully understood why suicide rates peak in the spring, but theories include:

During the winter and early spring, depressed people are typically surrounded by others who feel down because of the weather. When spring arrives, people who are depressed because of the weather cheer up, while people who are depressed for other reasons remain depressed and they must confront their own unhappiness.

There is a documented increase in manic behaviors in the springtime and bipolar disorder symptoms worsen during the spring. This could potentially trigger the self-destructive behaviors often seen with mania.

During the winter, many people essentially emotionally “hibernate.”

The anxieties of social interaction are less and people who may be depressed feel as if they are allowed to stay in, sleep more, and interact with others less. But as the weather warms up, these social pressures return, and those who feel once again forced into social engagement may become more stressed.

Allergies also resurface in the Spring.

Allergic symptoms are markers of inflammation in the body, and there are studies that have shown associations between inflammation and mood disorders. This will be discussed in further detail below.

Poorer air quality which also coincides with warmer weather, can increase the likelihood of depression and suicidal behavior. This is also believed to be due to increased particles in the air triggering inflammatory responses that can bring about worsening mood.

Is Pollen the Cause of Spring Depression?

Do you have seasonal allergies? Beyond making you feel congested, groggy, and flat-out miserable, pollen sensitivity might also contribute to changes in your mood, including feelings of depression. Several studies have now shown a link between allergies and depression.

Researchers have also noted that the springtime pollen period seems to coincide with a spike in suicides.

A recent study found that depression worsened during peak pollen periods in people with both bipolar disorder and active pollen allergies. [4]

The misery that seasonal allergy sufferers endure such as sneezing; runny or stuffy nose; itchy eyes or throat; watery eyes; might be reason enough to get depressed. Interestingly, in this research, the worsening of depression after high pollen exposure wasn't fully explained by the severity of people's allergy symptoms. Something more also seemed to be contributing to their sad mood. [4]

The most likely mechanism of action are cytokines, which are chemical messengers of the immune system.

Allergy attacks trigger the release of cytokines that promote inflammation. In both humans and animals, high levels of inflammation-promoting cytokines have been linked to something called "sickness behavior."

This pattern of behavior is characterized by increased sleeping, decreased appetite, reduced sex drive, and withdrawal from the environment.

In short, it's an awful lot like depression.

On top of all this, raging allergies make it hard to get a good night's sleep.  As noted above, too little or poor-quality sleep may also contribute to depression symptoms

A recent research study surveyed 1,306 Old Order Amish adults — a primarily farming population that has a higher exposure to pollen and other seasonal allergens. The results of this study also point to a link between high pollen days and worse mood symptoms among those with symptoms of spring or summer depression. [5] 

This study’s results confirmed their hypothesis of an association with mood sensitivity to aeroallergens and a summer pattern of seasonality. Also, there was specificity in regard to spring/summer-type season affective disorder and not fall/winter-type seasonal affective disorder.

This may have potential public health importance considering the high prevalence of allergic rhinitis and asthma, [6] and the expected increase in aeroallergen exposure due to forecasted climate change.

6 Practical Steps To Help Remedy Spring Depression

Let’s take a look at some essential strategies that may help lesson your symptoms and improve your overall mood.

1. Make time for physical activity. There are numerous benefits of physical activity!  Not only can regular exercise help relieve stress and ease symptoms of depression and anxiety, it can also lead to better sleep. If trying to stay as cool as possible during exercise, try swimming, exercising in an air-conditioned facility, or sticking to early morning and evening workouts, if you’re able to.

2. Eat a balanced diet. Although a lack of appetite is pretty common with spring depression and you may not feel like eating, not getting the right nutrients can leave you irritable, not to mention affect concentration and productivity. Reach for nourishing, depression-relieving foods, and drink plenty of water when you feel thirsty.

3. Keep your cool.   While there’s no conclusive evidence that sensitivity to heat contributes to spring depression, feeling uncomfortably hot most of the time probably won’t do much to improve your mood. Cool off by keeping hydrated, turning on fans (or air conditioning, when possible), and dressing in breathable clothing.

4. Reach out to loved ones. Although acknowledging to loved ones that you’re going through a tough stretch might feel tough at first. It can help to remember that your family and friends care for you and likely want to offer support, even if that just means listening to your feelings or keeping you company when you feel down.

5. Try meditation or journaling. It’s well known that both meditation and journaling can help you identify and accept difficult or unwanted emotions, including feelings of depression.

6. Practice good sleep hygiene. Lack of sleep can have a major impact on spring depression symptoms. To improve your sleep, aim to keep your room dark and cool with fans, blackout curtains, and layered, breathable bedding. Making it a habit to get up and go to bed at the same time every day doesn’t hurt, either.

Your body is a chemical factory that responds to the stimulus placed upon it.

This means when it comes to your mood there is a lot you can control and influence in your life.

From food to sleep to exercise and more, once you understand how your lifestyle habits influence your mood you can create healthy habits that not only make you big and strong, but also help to elevate your mood so you can better handle whatever this crazy world throws at you.

 

 

References:
1.    Li, L., et al., Insomnia and the risk of depression: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. BMC Psychiatry, 2016. 16(1): p. 375.
2.    Frick, A., et al., Serotonin Synthesis and Reuptake in Social Anxiety Disorder: A Positron Emission Tomography Study. JAMA Psychiatry, 2015. 72(8): p. 794-802.
3.    Benard, V., P.A. Geoffroy, and F. Bellivier, [Seasons, circadian rhythms, sleep and suicidal behaviors vulnerability]. Encephale, 2015. 41(4 Suppl 1): p. S29-37.
4.    Manalai, P., et al., Pollen-specific immunoglobulin E positivity is associated with worsening of depression scores in bipolar disorder patients during high pollen season. Bipolar Disord, 2012. 14(1): p. 90-8.
5.    Akram, F., et al., Mood Worsening on Days with High Pollen Counts is associated with a Summer Pattern of Seasonality. Pteridines, 2019. 30(1): p. 133-141.
6.    Akinbami, L.J., A.E. Simon, and L.M. Rossen, Changing Trends in Asthma Prevalence Among Children. Pediatrics, 2016. 137(1).

Dr. Paul Henning

About Dr. Paul

I'm currently an Army officer on active duty with over 15 years of experience and also run my own health and wellness business. The majority of my career in the military has focused on enhancing Warfighter health and performance. I am passionate about helping people enhance all aspects of their lives through health and wellness. Learn more about me