This is Your Brain (Walking) on Sunlight

Sunlight is good for us.

Maybe we don’t photosynthesize, but like plants, we need some amount of sunlight in order to grow healthy. When we’re exposed to the sun, we experience better physical and mental health. Sunlight exposure gives our brains serotonin—the hormone responsible for balancing mood and leaving us feeling calm, rested, and focused. Sunlight is also one of our body’s primary sources for producing vitamin D. It helps support strong bones, immune health, muscle function, and brain cell activity. Sunlight also signals when it’s time for the brain to sleep and wake. How well we sleep can have a dramatic effect on physical and psychological wellbeing. When the body is exposed to sunlight, it helps the body release melatonin at night (when it gets dark out) to help promote regular sleep. 

What happens on low levels of serotonin?

Serotonin helps with regulating and boosting mood. Low levels of it can lead to higher chances of emotional or behavioral disturbances. This can include depression (seasonal or year-round), anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and suicidal behavior. Lack of serotonin can cause a disruption in sleep, eating, and digestion as well. 


What happens with high levels of serotonin? 

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as too much serotonin. This usually results from taking supplements or substances known to increase serotonin levels. This can lead to milder symptoms like headaches, shivering, sweating, confusion, and high blood pressure. More severe symptoms may include irregular heartbeat, fever, unconsciousness, and seizures. It is important to consult with a healthcare professional about any interactions that may be affecting your serotonin levels if this is of concern. 


How do you get sun safely?

We are constantly reminded of the risks of too much sun exposure. But as with most things, moderation is key for benefitting from sunlight. The exact amount of time spent in direct sunlight before skin begins to burn will vary between skin types. This article has a breakdown detailing what makes up each classified skin type and how much time can be spent in the sun without protection before the skin burns—in general, lighter skin burns quicker than darker skin. 

To benefit from sunlight, the World Health Organization recommends getting brief, direct sun exposure for 5-15 minutes a couple times per week. This will help you receive a vitamin D boost and regulate serotonin levels. It is recommended to use sun protection for longer periods of time.  Sunglasses that block 100% of UV rays, SPF 15 or higher sunscreen, and clothing can help with that. Keep in mind sunlight is at its most intense midday—when the sun is at its highest in the sky from about 10am to 4pm. 

In wintertime, natural sunlight is harder to come by due to cloud cover and shorter days. We’re usually much more covered than on an average summer day. Because of this, people are more likely to experience a seasonal type of depression in the winter due to lack of sunlight. People experiencing anxiety, panic attacks, and other types of depression may also benefit greatly from increasing their exposure to sunlight. A workaround for this tremendous lack of sunlight in winter involves using a light box designed to mimic natural sunlight. This allows the brain to continue releasing healthy amounts of serotonin and melatonin, promoting better sleep among all the other benefits of sun exposure! This practice is also referred to as light therapy or phototherapy and can benefit anyone who wants to beat the winter blues.


The takeaway

Some of us may be more plantlike than others and may need to work harder to reap the benefits of sunlight. Incorporating just 5-15 minutes of casual sun exposure on your arms and face a couple times a week can balance vitamin D and serotonin levels. This could easily be integrated into daily short walks. For extended or more frequent periods of sun exposure, continue using sun protection to reduce risk of certain types of cancers and other health issues that result from too much sun exposure. 

As always, talk to your doctor about any health concerns or significant changes to your health routine. Let them know before you make changes or if suspect you may need additional treatment to address mental health or low serotonin or vitamin D levels. They can investigate further and offer you their medical recommendations, which may include certain medicines or supplements, light box therapy, or attending regular therapy sessions with a trained professional. 

If you would like to discuss this this or any other methods for improving your mental wellbeing, email or call us at (217) 203-2008 to schedule an appointment.

Happy (safe) sunning!