The strange stress of too much light: summer SAD

After the long, dark Yukon winter, how could anyone mind the extreme summer light? The extra sunshine gives us a boost of energy for late-night parties, hassle-free camping (no headlamps required) and gardening after midnight...


After the long, dark Yukon winter, how could anyone mind the extreme summer light? The extra sunshine gives us a boost of energy for late-night parties, hassle-free camping (no headlamps required) and gardening after midnight—all because our bodies are responding in a normal, healthy way to the stimulus of long daylight.

For a small number people, however, the increased dose of light can be a stress factor.

Light deprivation in the winter can trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) for a small percentage of individuals. Could it be that another group of people are overstimulated by the excess of light? Does summer SAD exist?

“I’ve lived in the Yukon for 30 years, and every summer I see it,” says Jim Williams, a Dawson contractor and restorer of heritage buildings. “People work hard, forget to sleep and push themselves, and by the end of July, a lot of us practically collapse from exhaustion.”

The first question is to know when the body’s response to the season shifts from being healthy to being unhealthy.

Dr. Keith Dobson says that few case studies have been conducted about summer SAD, so there are no statistics available about the number of people affected. However, clinical psychologists generally recognize its existence.

“We would view the long light as risk factor for depression, not causal factor specifically,” says the professor of clinical psychology at the University of Calgary.

“We do know a lot about the circadian rhythm,” Dobson adds. “It is useful to remember that any disturbance in sleep patterns can cause a problem in a person’s mood.”

Tolerance for changes in sleep cycles will vary a lot from person to person.

“Think of how some people can go without sleep on the weekend, while others will fall apart right away,” Dobson observes. For a few people, a mild manic episode can be brought on by stimulants such as excess caffeine or sleep disturbances, he says. Thus the summer light can cause sleep disruptions that may in turn lead to unbalanced mood—Summer SAD as an extended episode of mild mania.

The criteria for calling your response a Seasonal Affective Disorder is “if you experience two or more depression episodes that are predictably at same time of year,” says Dobson. If that “time of year” is a chunk of every summer, then you may have summer SAD.

The good news is that, as with “regular” Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), many symptoms of summer SAD can be alleviated or managed through nutrition.

Clients come every June and July for advice about how to deal with anxiety, insomnia, physical restlessness, headaches and a reduced ability to concentrate, says Bev Gray, a herbologist and registered aromatherapist who runs the Aroma Borealis Herb Shop in Whitehorse.

At first Gray didn’t connect the complaints to the season, because the symptoms of summer SAD are the opposite of winter SAD.

Instead of slowing down, people feel sped up.

“Generally it seems to trouble people who have to work nine-to-five. They can’t go with the flow of the season and enjoy the natural desire to stay up later than usual,” says Gray.

Gray reads the symptoms of summer SAD as an overstimulation of the adrenal system, which regulates our hormones and adrenaline, among other tasks. “Our adrenal glands are not just pyramid-shaped hats (this little kidney-shaped key) on top of our kidneys—they have a big function,” she says.

They are endocrine glands which secrete hormones and one of the main purposes is to regulate stress.

“If we don’t take care of them, that can lead to waking up tired, feeling run down, cravings for starchy and salty foods, low immune function, digestive disturbances and PMS.”

Recommendations for handling summer SAD will vary depending on the symptoms, Gray says.

She will often suggest a combination of herbs that nourish the adrenal system during the day, followed by calming herbs (also called “nervine” herbs) in the evening. Rhodolia rosea, a plant native to the Yukon, helps our bodies adapt to stress. The herb, which is also used to treat altitude sickness, can be taken as a tincture throughout the day. For sleep, Gray recommends herbs like valerian, lemon balm and hops.

“Some take it as a tea, which is my most recommended way,” says Gray, “but for someone with a bladder issue, tea before bed won’t work.”

Alternates to tea include ingesting capsules, or using tinctures.

For example, a lemon balm bath could be a calming preparation for sleep.

Gray recommends oat straw tea for overall adrenal nourishment.

She suggests taking it with a calcium-magnesium supplement—calcium helps the body relax, and magnesium helps the absorption of calcium—before bed. This combination can increase the body’s ability to replenish during the night.

If you’re mind-boggled at the thought of summer light bothering anyone, then you are not a candidate for summer SAD.

But if the thought of being able to sleep well fills you with longing, you may wish to consult with a naturopath or physician for practical advice about how to make it to September without burning out.

Meg Walker is a freelance writer

who lives in Dawson City.