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What’s the Connection Between Sun Exposure and Mental Health?

What’s the Connection Between Sun Exposure and Mental Health?

What’s the Connection Between Sun Exposure and Mental Health?

Sunlight has long been associated with positive emotions and mental well-being. The phrase “sunny disposition” is more than just a metaphor, and there is a deep-seated cultural understanding of the sun’s ability to lift our spirits and improve our mood.

Research suggests there’s something scientific going on here, too. The days are fast getting shorter, so now’s the time to pack in that sunlight while we can. Here are some science-backed reasons why…

Sunlight Improves Mood 

Sunlight exposure helps to increase levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in mood regulation. Serotonin is often referred to as the “happiness hormone” because it can promote feelings of well-being and contentment. When we are exposed to sunlight, our retinas send signals to the brain, which triggers the release of serotonin which can boost our mood and energy levels. 

Sunlight Reduces Stress and Anxiety

When we spend time outdoors, we are exposed to natural light, which helps to regulate our circadian rhythms and promotes relaxation. In addition, exposure to sunlight can stimulate the production of endorphins, hormones that are focused on stress relief and pain relief. 

Being in the warm sun, and close to nature, can also provide a sense of peace and serenity, which can serve as a calming antidote to stress. A 2016 study investigating the effects of nature and sunlight on employee wellness found that those who got more sunlight exposure tended to have more positive mental health, lower levels of anxiety, and higher job satisfaction. 

Sunlight Helps Ease Depression and SAD

Sunlight exposure can help to reduce symptoms of depression by increasing serotonin levels and helping stave off Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a type of depression that is triggered by changes in seasons, particularly the shorter days and fewer hours of sunlight during the winter months. 

A 2023 study published in the journal Risk Management and Healthcare Policy found that people who live in areas with more sunlight exposure tend to have greater mental health. A 2001 study found that hospitalized patients with bipolar depression who stayed in rooms that were exposed to direct sunlight in the morning had shorter hospital stays than bipolar depression patients in rooms without morning sunlight. 

Research shows that light therapy (also known as phototherapy) can be a helpful treatment for SAD. In light therapy, the recipient undergoes routine, daily exposure to bright light, typically with a specialized light box that mimics the color spectrum of real sunlight.

Sunlight Improves Brain Function

Sunlight has been scientifically proven to positively impact cognitive function, attention, and memory! Research has uncovered sunlight’s ability to enhance cognitive performance and potentially reduce the risk of mental decline and conditions like dementia. 

When we are exposed to sunlight, our brains produce more dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in attention, learning, and memory. A 2009 study in the journal Environmental Health found that among depressed participants, those exposed to lower levels of sunlight had impaired cognitive performance. 

Sunlight Helps You Sleep Better

Sleep deprivation can take a toll on mental health. Sunlight exposure helps to regulate the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. The body’s circadian clock responds to light as a signal to be awake, and darkness as a signal to go to sleep. And when we get enough sunlight during the day, we are more likely to produce melatonin at night, which helps us to fall asleep and stay asleep more soundly. A 2022 study in the Journal of Pineal Research found that not getting enough natural light during the day negatively impacts one’s quality of sleep at night.  

Sunlight, Vitamin D, and Your Health

Vitamin D is an essential vitamin and its deficiency is linked with many signs of ill health, including feelings of depression, low mood, fatigue, muscle pain, weak bones, frequent illness and more. The primary source of this nutrient is sunlight (80-90%) and not very many foods are naturally rich in vitamin D. And so it is important to spend some time in the sun to absorb this essential nutrient. Around 8 to 10 minutes of sun exposure at noon produces the daily recommended amount of vitamin D. And studies have suggested that low levels of vitamin D during pregnancy are linked to postpartum depression.  

In addition to these mental health benefits, being outside in the sun can also provide several other benefits, such as:

  • Improved physical health: Sunlight exposure helps to strengthen the immune system, reduce inflammation, and improve bone health.
  • Reduced risk of chronic diseases: Sunlight exposure has been shown to reduce the risk of developing several chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.
  • Increased social interaction: Being outside in nature can provide an opportunity to connect with others and enjoy the company of friends and family. This can help to reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.

The UV Caveat…

It is important to note that ample sun exposure without the appropriate protection against ultraviolet rays can be harmful, with risks including sunburn and skin cancer. So make sure that when you do bathe in the sun’s healing rays you wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 at the very least. Avoid exposing your skin to the sun (even on overcast days) for extended periods, especially around noon, when the sun’s rays are strongest, and wear protective clothing when you are outdoors for extended periods.

But don’t let ultraviolet rays scare you away from the sun’s wellness-inducing light! Get your SPF, and get out there—your spirit and soul will thank you.

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