Minding the Body

The guide to health and happiness

When Spring Brings You Down

For some, April showers bring May depression.

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Spring is usually a happy, hopeful season - think spring fever and spring break. But for some people, the season brings out the opposite feelings. Two likely culprits are seasonal allergies and reverse SAD.

Seasonal Allergies: The Achoo! Effect

Springtime pollen allergies may leave you both sneezy and grumpy. 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.

One interesting study led by researchers from the University of Maryland at Baltimore was recently published in the journal Bipolar Disorders. The researchers found that depression worsened during peak pollen periods in people with both bipolar disorder and active pollen allergies. The misery endured by seasonal allergy sufferers - sneezing; runny or stuffy nose; itchy eyes or throat; watery eyes - might be reason enough to get depressed. But in this study, 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 blue mood.

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The most likely candidates are cytokines, the 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.

Beyond that, raging allergies make it hard to get a good night's sleep. And too little or poor quality sleep may also contribute to depression symptoms.

Reverse SAD: Bright Days, Dark Moods

Rain or shine, some people find the weather depressing. A recent study led by researchers at Utrecht University looked at different patterns of mood in response to weather conditions. One group, dubbed Summer Haters, felt in a worse mood as the weather got warmer and sunnier. The researchers speculated that Summer Haters might be at risk for a condition sometimes referred to as reverse SAD.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of recurring depression in which the symptoms start and stop around the same time each year. Typically, they begin in fall or winter and subside in spring. But in about one out of 10 SAD sufferers, the pattern is reversed, with depression returning in the spring or summer. Common symptoms of reverse SAD include insomnia, irritability, restlessness, poor appetite, and weight loss. It's thought that this form of depression may be a reaction to higher heat and humidity, since traveling to a cooler locale sometimes brings relief.

Unfortunately, the very fact that spring is supposed to be a time of joy and renewal can highlight what's missing for those who aren't feelng that way. It's the "I'm the only one not having fun on spring break" effect, and it's bound to make someone who's already down feel even worse.

If you're in that group, there may be some comfort in knowing that you aren't the only one. Don't hesitate to reach out for help if you're struggling. For some people, April showers bring not only May flowers, but also a trip to the therapist's or a prescription for antidepressants.

Linda Wasmer Andrews wrote here recently about the psychological impact of springing forward to daylight saving time. Follow her on Twitter. Find her on Facebook. Visit her online.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health writer with a master's degree in health psychology.

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