Is the Summer Making You SAD?

The sun is shining, the sky is blue, the temperature is soaring – you should be happy, right? Not if you’re suffering from the UAE’s summer syndrome...
Thursday , 18 August 2011
Is the Summer Making You SAD?
Hiding indoors?

Living here in the Middle East means there’s a lot of things for us to be grateful for, but nothing can really beat the weather. Three hundred and sixty-five days of (mostly) full-on sunshine is one of the reasons that many of us come to these hazy shores in the first place. There’s not much that can cheer us up more each morning than opening the curtains to dazzling daylight, however, recent studies reveal that over the next few months the balmy temperatures will also bring a serious new health problem, and one that we are all in danger of.

“During the winter months, we revel in the hot weather – everything in Dubai is geared to being outside, from al fresco lunches to chilling with friends on the beach,” says Dubai-based counsellor, Sandra Gill. “But come summer, it’s too hot to leave the safety of the air-con so we become less active socially, which can lead to low moods and even depression.”

Indeed, a new study by Zayed University has discovered that while colder temperatures and a lack of sunlight in northern climates can lead to Seasonal Effective Disorder (SAD), the same can occur in the Middle East, only in reverse.

Mood Swings
SAD is also known as the ‘winter blues’ and tends to occur around the changing of the seasons when people’s metabolism, mood and behaviour go into a state of flux. Symptoms can range from mood swings, sleep problems, depression, weight gain and joint pains, and the main cause is due to your body receiving a lack of sunlight. While it usually happens in the winter months, the phenomena is now starting to take place in the UAE during the summertime. “Of course, the UAE is full of bright light all year round but in this instance SAD is being driven by high temperatures leading to people feeling trapped indoors and in darkness,” confirms Dr Justin Thomas, a professor of psychology at Zayed University who was involved in the study.

The study was one of the first in the region to link the changing seasons in the Gulf climate with depressive symptoms and vitamin D deficiency (the sunshine vitamin), and was carried out on 197 female undergraduates over two-week periods in October and March. “We found that a vast amount of people were vitamin D deficient and their levels of deficiency and depressive symptoms were highest just after the summer months,” says Dr Thomas. “This is because about 90 per cent of our vitamin D intake comes from the sunlight and when the temperatures rise – like they are now – we stay safe and avoid the sunshine.”

While anyone can be at risk of SAD, there are some who are considered to be more so than others. “Those that tend to cover themselves up and have less skin contact with the sun through their lifestyle, along with those who stay at home a lot or in the malls will be more exposed to it,” Dr Thomas says. Amal Loring, an expert in stress management from wellbeing company Mind, Body Dynamixs (mindbodydynamix.com), agrees. “Being covered up can cause people to suffer from a lack of vitamin D as clothes limit the skin’s exposure to daylight, thus making it difficult to synthesise the sunlight and turn it into vitamin D,” she says.

And research has found that women are more likely to suffer from the syndrome than men due to the fact that females already have a predisposition towards depression. Around one in four women will be treated for depression at some point in their lives, compared with one in 10 men. Also new research from the Karolinksa Institute in Sweden has found that women’s brains may be wired for increased anxiety,depression and mood swings which can be exacerbated by weight-loss programmes (and who isn’t on one?) and a vitamin D deficiency.

Aches and Pains
But of course, everyone has down days and now the heat is on, most of us are having regular moans about the steamy climate, yet how can you know whether you’re just a bit peeved (and sweaty) or that your mood is something more serious? Unfortunately, SAD is not easy to identify. “The biggest thing about it is that it creeps up on you,” says Dr Thomas. “You might feel lethargic and experience a few aches and pains such as sore and heavy limbs, but you’d never suspect it’s because you’re vitamin D deficient. Unlike other vitamin deficiencies, this one has no telltale symptoms, but if we don’t get out into the sunshine soon it could become a global issue.”

One of the things to ask yourself is whether your behavioural patterns have changed. “If you’re sleeping more than usual, feeling more irritable for no particular reason or are too tired to do anything, then you could be suffering from SAD,” says Loring who recommends starting a ‘mood diary’ as a bid to monitor just how in danger of the syndrome you are.

Sara Heller, from the UK, moved to Dubai early last year and suffered from SAD last summer, but could never prove it. “Coming from Britain, I was used to the idea of SAD occurring in the winter months but I never knew it could happen during the summer months too,” she says. “When I arrived here I loved the constant sunshine and lack of rain, so I had no reason to think anything would change over the summer.” She continues, “But when I look back, I know my behaviour changed around last July. I became aggravated by my friends without having any idea why and I practically became a hermit. The thought of going outside scared me as the weather was stifling. I couldn’t stand the idea of dealing with the heat so I spent the summer months staying in and watching DVD box sets.”

Is it Preventable?
Of course, the problem is that while sunshine can prevent the onset of SAD, the rays out here are often too harsh, unhealthy and dangerous to be exposed to for a certain amount of time. So, what’s the right balance? “Unfortunately, there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” says Dr Thomas. “How long you spend in the sun depends on your body mass index, height, age and skin colour and the climate you live in. What you need to bear in mind is that the sun won’t get through factor 40+ sun lotion so you have to find a middle ground between getting your fix, but not putting yourself at risk of burning or of skin cancer.”

According to US News, experts say that going outside for 10 minutes in the midday sun – in shorts and a top with no sunscreen – will give you enough radiation to produce about 10,000 international units of vitamin D, but of course, the sunshine in the UAE can be significantly stronger than elsewhere in the world so this has to be taken into consideration. “You just need to be aware of the heat and use your common sense,” Dr Thomas continues. “Make sure you’re not in the sun between 11am and 3pm, and don’t stay so long that you burn.”

And while there are many Vitamin D supplements on the market that can contribute to upping your intake, the typical dosages are so low that they can only really help when combined with a diet that’s also rich in vitamin D. “Research has proven that the right food can have a significant impact on your mood levels and help prevent the onset of SAD,” says nutritionist for Dubai-based weight loss company Good Habits, Carole Holditch. “Avoid stimulants such as tea, coffee and sugar as these put your adrenal glands under stress. As vitamin D is oil-soluble opt for foods that are rich in oil, like salmon, mackerel and tuna and a cod liver oil supplement can also help.”

Exercise is also vital for keeping your spirits up. Yes, it may feel like the last thing you want to do, but there are loads of indoor exercise classes throughout the UAE and a workout will release endorphins – the ‘happy’ chemicals in your body. Also, Loring suggests re-wiring your mindset to start thinking about the weather from a different perspective. “We can’t change the hot temperatures, so rather than letting the heat control you, think about ways that you can get your sunshine quota and work it to your advantage. For example, choose the cooler parts of the day to venture out, such as 6am for an early morning jog so you still get a sunshine fix. Rather than wallowing that you can’t do anything or go anywhere, use these quieter months to do the jobs you’ve been putting off, such as redecorating the house or writing those long-awaited emails to friends.”

But the best thing you can do is be aware of what you’re feeling. “Be mindful of your moods,” says Loring. “If you find yourself slipping into SAD, despite just wanting to stay indoors, the best remedy is company to help lift your spirits. Focusing on other people will stop you obsessing about yourself so start spending a little more time with friends, which will help to cheer you up and re-set your outlook.”

However, if you’re really worried, Dr Thomas recommends seeing your doctor who’ll be able to give you a Vitamin D deficiency test. Seek advice and you can ditch those hiding-under-the-duvet-days and rebuild your love for sunshine-soaked Dubai.

Mood-beating Menu
Nutritionist Carole Holditch reveals your daily dosage of foodie SAD stoppers
Cod liver oil, 1 tablespoon
Salmon, 3 ounces
Cooked mackerel, 3 ounces
Tuna fish, canned in water and drained, 3 ounces
Milk, vitamin D-fortified, 1 cup
Orange juice fortified with vitamin D, 1 cup
Yoghurt, 6 ounces
Cooked liver or beef, 3.5 ounces
1 large egg
Swiss cheese, 1 ounce