One of the most effective mental healthcare tools is free, abundant, and easily accessible.
No, we are definitely not talking about water or berries.
Didn’t get it?
It’s the sunlight.
We completely understand if you’re eye-rolling at us.
If someone told us that what mental health needs is more sunlight, well, we would eye roll too. If the doctor prescribed us sunlight for our mental health issues, we would feel like they were being dismissive of our condition too. Because it’s therapy and medications that help, right?
Well, let’s convince you otherwise.
The great Hippocrates found a link between changing seasons and health. He believed that the key to good health was somehow related to the available daylight during different times of the year.
Now centuries later, we realize he was definitely onto something.
Research has made it evident that we are more or less made with the same particles as the stars. And hence it’s no surprise that the moon gets us angry, and the absence of the sun makes us sad.
However, at this point, you might have gotten tired of the advice from sun exposure trends. Yes, we know that prolonged exposure to sunlight can lead to skin cancer and related issues. But the idea of avoiding the sun altogether sounds like a bit of advice to vampires: ‘Avoid the sun at all costs, or you will perish.’
We need an adequate amount of sunlight to boost our mental health.
Now, sunlight might sound like a pseudo-science type vague band-aid for mental health issues. But there is a fair amount of scientific data backing the fact that what mental health needs is more sunlight.
Let’s back up: How exactly does sunlight affect our mental health?
Ah… The great indoors! Most of us love the times we spend snuggled in our bed with curtains closed. The glow of our screens and the warmth of our bed make us want to stay there forever.
Well, perhaps we don’t enjoy time inside as much as we think we do. Our body suffers when it doesn’t get the required amount of daylight it needs. Sunlight has wide-ranging effects on our bodies. Let’s explore the ways how sunlight particularly affects our mental health.
Is sunlight good for mental health?
A very resounding YES!
Brains evolved on a planet that rotated around the sun. During evolution, the human brain used light and dark patterns to align specific biological and behavioral functions with it. This alignment is called the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is crucial for our mental health.
But our 21st-century lifestyle has dramatically imbalanced our connection with the rhythm. Most of the time we spend waking up is in artificially lit surroundings and without sunlight. Added to this, we are exposed to too much light at night. And hence many of us suffer from fatigue, chronic low mood, and poor sleep quality.
How does sunlight affect our mood?
The most decisive role of sunlight in health is its ability to affect our moods.
The most staggering evidence of this comes from the condition ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).’
Dr. N Rosenthal gave the term to describe what we generally refer to as ‘winter blues.’ Winter blues is the laziness and hopelessness that comes with low exposure to sunlight due to weather conditions. It is believed that the overwhelming amount of time we spend inside due to our busy lifestyles may be a step toward year-round SAD.
Wonder, what is it that is that forms the link between our moods and sunlight? The answer is a chemical found in our brains called serotonin.
Sunlight and Serotonin
The presence of sunlight and even the lack of it at night triggers several hormones in the brain. One of these is serotonin. It is associated with:
An Australian study on brain chemicals found higher serotonin levels in people during bright sunny days than on cloudy ones.
That explains the effect of sunlight on our moods. When you don’t get enough sunlight, you miss out on a serotonin boost. If your serotonin levels are low, your mood dips.
But, how does sunlight increase serotonin?
The action of sunlight on our eyes causes the production of serotonin. Didn’t get it?
Let’s break it down for you.
Unlike other species, sunlight doesn’t directly affect our brains. Our hair and skulls do an excellent job of protecting the brain, you see.
Hence, the action of the sunlight is on the eyes. When sunlight falls on our eyes, it reaches a part called the retina. Do you recognize films used in cameras in early times? So if our eye was a camera, the retina is that light-sensitive film. The images of the things we see form on the retina through the action of light.
Sunlight triggers specific cells in the retina. These cells send a signal to the brain to produce serotonin, establishing a direct link between the chemical and sunlight. When the message reaches the brain, it converts a chemical called tryptophan into serotonin. Hence the amount of serotonin in your body is linked to the amount of tryptophan in your diet and the sunlight you are exposed to.
Serotonin is the happiness hormone of the brain. It gives us feelings of joy and pleasure. It increases our tolerance to stress. It makes us nicer and kinder to the people around us and improves our moods.
Sunlight = Increased tolerance of stress and happier mood- check!
Wait, that’s not all. Sunlight also aids your sleep. When the sun sets, the lack of sunlight prompts the brain to break down serotonin into melanin. Melanin is the hormone that puts you to sleep. So low serotonin would also mean low melanin.
Sunlight = good and more sleep – check!
Sunlight and Depression
There is a positive association between depression and sunlight. It has proven to be effective in alleviating seasonal and non-seasonal depressive disorders. It is the most accessible and easy-to-absorb antidepressant you will find.
How is sunlight a natural antidepressant?
As discussed above, sunlight aids the production of serotonin which works as a mood uplifter. However, there is one more component that makes sunlight a natural antidepressant.
We all know sunlight is an excellent source of vitamin D.
The vitamin is essential for the functioning of the human body. It strengthens the bones and the immune system. A lack of vitamin D has been associated with depressive disorders and schizophrenia. According to a study, vitamin D deficient people are twice more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than others.
Not only this, sunlight is an important factor in many severe mental disorders.
Research has suggested a potential role of sunlight in fighting postpartum depression. Less exposure to sunlight in the third trimester of the pregnancy increases the risk of postpartum depression among females.
Anxiety and Sunlight
Sunlight shares a strong relationship with anxiety and almost all other panic disorders. However, the effect of the sun on anxiety is not as direct as mood and depression. Despite the lack of a proper cause-and-effect relationship, people can experience heightened anxiety and panic when exposure to sunlight is less.
The sun may have an important role in reducing anxiety. When the sun rises, we tend to do things differently. We become more active and tend to spend more time outside. These activities are linked to mental well-being and reduced anxiety.
Sunlight is not a substitute for professional treatment
When Glenn Close said that what mental health needs is more sunlight, all of us should have listened.
Sunlight is a potent natural agent to ward off several mental illnesses. It is also pretty safe if you limit your time outside or wear sunscreen. It helps you sleep better and induces a good mood.
Although it might seem annoying to get bombarded with unsolicited advice like ‘just go out,’ it does have some scientific merit.
However, it is not a substitute for therapy or proper professional help. You should actively seek health and support irrespective of your condition.
Sunshine helps your body develop strong defenses against mental disorders. Since your brains can’t repair themselves as you sit in the room binge-watching Stranger Things, go outside and catch some light.
Now that you know sunlight’s importance, let’s take you to another natural ingredient that boosts your mental health. Read to know the mental health benefits of asparagus.
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