You’ve probably heard about depression that comes on with the change of seasons — typically during the winter months. But the hottest time of the year can also trigger mood swings.
Some people become more irritable, agitated, or impatient when they’re overheated. Maybe that’s why we refer to someone as having a “hot temper,” and why violence tends to increase during the heat of summer.
Like the more common winter depression, summer mood changes may also be related to a drop in serotonin levels. This neurotransmitter is important for several functions in the body, including mood stabilization — it’s the feel-good chemical.
I think of serotonin as a “brain coolant” that can be depleted while protecting and soothing us under extreme conditions, one of which is high temperatures. In effect, when the mercury rises, serotonin levels may fall.
Why does that matter? Serotonin enhances mood in many ways, including these:
- Supporting a sense of well-being.
- Soothing us when we are upset.
- Restraining impulsiveness.
Calming the Fire Within
Another way to think about this is through the lens of Ayurveda, the traditional system of medicine from India. Ayurveda considers the seasons and uses diet and other forms of self-care to keep us balanced year-round; the summer months are considered the pitta season.
Pitta is one of the three mind-body types, or doshas, and is associated with a fiery personality and a more driven nature. When serotonin is imbalanced, people with the pitta constitution — what I refer to as the “Fire Type” — may be more prone to develop some of the symptoms described earlier, since they tend to experience more trouble with the heat. (Learn more about Ayurveda at “Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Care”.)
Even if you aren’t a Fire Type, you might benefit from adopting these simple practices during the hottest time of year to boost serotonin:
1. Keep a steady routine.
Aim to wake up and go to sleep on the same schedule each day, and keep regular mealtimes. Eat an early, light dinner and never skip meals or wait until you’re overly hungry to eat. And use the magic of summer to reclaim a healthy balance between work and play.
2. Eat cooling foods.
Focus on light, summery foods (lots of fresh vegetables and fruits). Splurge on an occasional barbecue if you like, but generally eat only modest amounts of meat proteins, especially limiting your consumption of red meat and spicy or greasy foods.
3. Move to cool.
Regular exercise is beneficial, but avoid intense exercise and choose the coolest time of the day for more vigorous activity. Head to the pool or exercise in nature (especially near water). Doing so with others is a plus. Consider paddling or other water sports, walking, and easy biking.
4. Prioritize sleep.
If you experience mild agitation, you may find that you often wake and ruminate in the middle of the night (typically between 2 and 4 a.m.). Ease this by heading to bed early, even during the longer days. Set aside 30 to 45 minutes for a relaxed bedtime routine to help you prepare for sleep. Try setting the lights low, turn off the computer or TV, read a story, or take a cool shower or bath.
5. Try aromatherapy.
Experiment with aromatherapy and self-massage. Use a base oil like sunflower or coconut and add a few drops of a soothing essential oil like rose, or a cooling one such as mint or sandalwood. (For more on using essential oils safely, visit “Why Aromatherapy Is Going Mainstream”.
6. Balance your breath.
Try alternate-nostril breathing: Covering the opposite-side nostril with your thumb or forefinger, inhale through your left nostril, then exhale through your right. Next, inhale on your right, and exhale on your left. Do this for just a few minutes or until you feel rebalanced and relaxed.
7. Enjoy yourself.
I love getting away from the heat on a weeklong canoe trip. It’s cool, water is everywhere, and the immersion in nature helps me slow down. Find your own ways to relax and unwind, whether it’s spending time in nature, reading a good book, or reconnecting with friends and family.
This article originally appeared in Experience Life, Life Time’s whole-life health and fitness magazine.