The sun is the single most important part of human life—we rely on it to keep us warm, help our food grow, and (literally) make the world go ‘round. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the sun also plays a role in our mental and emotional well-being. And yet, many people don’t know that turning to the sun can improve how they feel.
Depression is on the rise in the United States, and scientists are wondering if spending so much time indoors with our computers and TV’s is making matters worse. Studies are linking a lack of sun exposure to lower levels of happiness. There’s even a name for that melancholy feeling people often get during darker winter months: Seasonal Affective Disorder (appropriately shortened to SAD). SAD, or “the winter blues,” is thought to occur when people are forced to spend more time inside, with less exposure to sunlight. And, since our modern way of living is only increasing the time we spend indoors, relying on artificial light, there are concerns that individuals are starting to experience a form of SAD year-round.
The reason people feel a shift in their mood when they don’t see the sun for a while is that getting even a little sun increases the serotonin levels in your brain. Serotonin is one of the brain chemicals responsible for feeling good. One Australian study found that people had higher serotonin levels on bright sunny days than on cloudy ones. To give you a better idea of what that means, many antidepressants work by boosting serotonin. These findings suggest that sun exposure can help people with depression (and anxiety), especially as a supplement to other treatments.
Researchers at BYU came to a similar conclusion. They saw increased mental health concerns in people during seasons with lower sun exposure. Days with bright sunshine, on the other hand, were linked with better mental health. And the serotonin people soaked up from the sun also led to more restful sleep, because melatonin (the brain chemical responsible for sleep), works hand in hand with serotonin. Since better sleep has been shown to improve mood as well, the importance of sun exposure becomes more and more obvious.
But what can you do if you live in a part of the world that just doesn’t get much sunlight; or perhaps it’s been a particularly rainy season; or maybe you work the night shift, so you have to sleep during the day? If you have limited access to the sun’s rays, don’t worry. New studies show that light therapy can help people suffering from any type of depression. So, while the artificial light coming from your ceiling doesn’t offer you any benefits, a small investment in a special light therapy lamp (a Google search will offer you a variety of options) can make all the difference. Just turn on your light therapy box in the morning for a quick boost to your mood and energy levels.
When it comes to the sun, 5-15 minutes a day, a few times a week is enough exposure for you to notice a difference in your mental health, giving new meaning to the term “sunny disposition.”