Hello Sunshine, You Make Me Happy

Sunshine’s Impact on Mental Well-Being

One of the most effective treatments for anxiety and depression is available to all of us
for free—it’s sunshine. It acts as a natural stress buster and mood enhancer. In fact,
some psychiatrists are literally prescribing daily sun exposure to their patients.

There seem to be several mechanisms at work here. We need sunshine for vitamin D,
a crucial nutrient that has been linked to mood stability. When our skin absorbs sunlight,
it triggers the production of vitamin D, which is known to influence the release of
neurotransmitters like serotonin—a key player in mood regulation. More serotonin is
associated with feelings of happiness and well-being. Did you know that most anxiety
and depression medications are targeted to increase our serotonin?

Exposure to sunlight also prompts the release of endorphins, the body’s feel-good
chemicals which help to alleviate stress and anxiety. Finally, sunlight exposure has been
shown to regulate the body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, which controls the
sleep-wake cycle. A well-regulated circadian rhythm is vital for maintaining a healthy
sleep pattern. Countless studies have shown that quality sleep is closely tied to mood
stability and better overall mental health. If possible, try to spend your first half hour
awake each morning in a sunny room, because that cues your brain that it’s time to start
the day!

If you’re stuck inside studying or working, make an effort to go outside for at least 10-20
minutes in the middle of the day. Go for a walk, listen to some music, or just sit in the
sun. Even if it’s very cold outside, it’s often sunny in Colorado. Don’t be freaked out by
what your weather app says the temperature is. Temperature can be deceiving in
sunny Colorado; it’s often warmer than you expect. Bundle up, remove your sunglasses,
and let the sun reach some uncovered part of your skin. Your mood will thank you!

What is SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is when people feel “down” or have the “winter
blues” when the days get shorter in the fall and winter. The most difficult months for
people with SAD in the United States tend to be January and February. Simply put, our
mood and energy levels dip with less exposure to sunlight. Other SAD symptoms
include:

  • Feeling listless, sad or down most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy and feeling sluggish
  • Having problems with sleeping too much
  • Experiencing carbohydrate cravings, overeating and weight gain
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Having thoughts of not wanting to live

SAD Lamps

One great way to combat SAD is with bright light treatment. You sit in front of a very
bright light box (10,000 lux) every day for about 30−45 minutes, usually first thing in the
morning, from fall to spring. The light box, which is about 20 times brighter than ordinary
indoor light, filters out the potentially damaging UV light, making this a safe treatment
that won’t damage your skin.

A SAD lamp mimics natural sunlight and can improve your mood. Whereas the original
lamps were manufactured in Scandanavia (go figure, very little winter sun), and quite
expensive, you can now find an excellent SAD lamp for $50-$100. It’s easy to find
recent online reviews of lamps through websites like Wire Cutter and Consumer Tested
Reviews. Here’s a budget pick that I love for under $60, the Verilux HappyLight.

Wrap Up

Don’t forget this simple and free strategy to combat the winter blues. Get outside in the
middle of the day for 10-20 minutes. The sun is a critical tool in our mental health
toolbox. Like all good tools, you need to use them.