A Sunny Disposition: Sunlight and Mental Health

Too much direct sunlight on your skin can be harmful. But moderate exposure to the sun’s rays is vital for physical and mental health. The natural cycles of daylight and darkness, known to science as “the circadian rhythm,” control the release of important mood-altering hormones in the brain.  

Exposure to sunlight triggers production of the “happy hormone,” or serotonin. Medical research links serotonin balance to feelings of contentment and well-being. Low light or darkness triggers melatonin production. Melatonin is a hormone responsible for making you feel sleepy.

If you don’t get enough sunlight, your serotonin levels can sink. Reduced serotonin leads to low mood, irritability, and tiredness. In certain people it can cause Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a depressive illness influenced by changing seasonal light frequencies and day length.

Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder

An effective treatment for SAD is a therapeutic light-box, or “phototherapy.” SAD light-boxes produce light which replicates the strength and frequencies of daylight. Research has shown that exposure to a light-box for at least 30 minutes a day can stimulate increased serotonin production, decrease melatonin levels, and lift mood.

Sunlight can also help ease the symptoms of clinical depression, Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), and Post-natal Depression (PND). In certain people insufficient exposure to sunlight induces anxiety disorder. Natural sunlight is the best light treatment, but a phototherapeutic light-box is an excellent investment for people in northern climates and during the long winter months.

The exact amount of exposure to sunlight needed to boost mood varies with each individual. Experts recommend 15 to 20 minutes of exposure to the face, arms and hands as a healthy daily minimum. While sunlight on the skin helps produce vitamin D, light entering through the eyes stimulates serotonin production.

Don’t Forget The Sunscreen

When exposing yourself to the sun for its mental health benefits, always remember to guard against the potential harm which it can cause to your skin. Alternating periods of exposure with time in the shade is a good idea. To protect yourself from increased cancer risk caused by ultraviolet rays, make sure you apply a sunblock cream with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30.

Taking exercise outside is a great way to help ease the symptoms of anxiety and depression. If that’s not possible for you, gentle exercise indoors in front of a certified phototherapeutic light-box is an effective and affordable alternative. If you think light therapy could help you, talk to your doctor, who will recommend a suitable course of treatment and lifestyle changes.

There’s a reason happy people are said to have a “sunny disposition.” Sunlight exposure won’t cure serious depression, and if you are taking antidepressants you should get your doctor’s advice before getting out in the sun. But for SAD and most moderate forms of depression, adding a little extra sunshine to your life could be just what you’re missing.

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