Last updated December 25, 2022
Prone to winter blues? Here are our strategies and tips to combat seasonal depression.
“Rejoice in the sunlight,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which is something we humans do regularly—whether it’s a moment on a balcony or backyard, or a vacation in a tropical destination.
Come winter in the northern hemisphere when the days are shorter, we all crave the sight of our favorite star: the sun.
Vital to the planet’s weather, climate, seasons AND essential to life, the sun is all-important to the environment. But how does the sun affect the human body?
Although we’re cautious to protect the skin from overexposure to the sun’s UV radiation, its rays are crucial for many of the body’s functions. Not to mention the mind.
Benefits of Sunshine to Combat Seasonal Depression
The body produces melatonin, a hormone, as a response to darkness, regulating the circadian rhythms within the body, aka the 24-hour clock. Being in the sun helps the body create more melatonin so sleep comes easier and at a regular time each evening.
This allows the body and mind to reduce stress as well as restore and repair while sleeping. And keeping the circadian rhythms flowing as they should aids the brain to function normally.
The simple explanation is that the sun makes us happy. Light affects several receptors in the brain which respond to mental status and alertness. It also helps increase production of seratonin, often referred to as the happiness hormone, which makes one feel calm and alert.
Light helps reduce the risk of depression as well as plays an important part in regulating mood swings. A study published in the Journal of Human Resources showed that students who get a daily dose of sun performed better on tests.
Vitamin D is essential to maintaining strong bones, which the body produces when exposed to sunlight. As little as 15 minutes a day of sun exposure can aid in keeping the bones strong as well as igniting inactive Vitamin D in our bodies.
As well as promoting calcium and phosphorous absorption, both essential building blocks of bones, the sunshine vitamin helps control infections and reduce inflammation.
Vitamin D is also important to strengthening the body’s immune system, the network of organs, cells and proteins defending the body from infection. In a recent study by Georgetown University Medical Center, sunlight exposure encouraged T cells to work faster. T cells are white blood cells, developed from the stem cells in the blood marrow, and are part of the immune system to protect the body.
A 2016 study revealed a surprising outcome: among nearly 30,000 women in Sweden, each monitored over 20 years, those who spent more time in the sun had less heart disease, fewer non-cancer deaths and lived longer. Getting that dose of light in the morning and the evening is the most beneficial to a healthy long life.
Signs the Body Craves More Sunlight
But what happens when we don’t get enough sunlight? What are the signs the body lacks daylight?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Gloomy moments are normal, especially during autumn and winter’s shorter days. If you’re moody, lethargic or drowsy (or all three) when the season changes, consider speaking with a physician to see if you may be affected by SAD.
According to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, one in 10 Americans can experience this malady. Exercise, therapy and time spent with family/friends can all help be part of the treatment to understand and combat the effects of SAD.
Sunshine plays a part in the body’s metabolism with the creation of nitric oxide, which aids in breaking down dietary nitrates and helps prevent binge eating. Not having the normal dose of light could mean slowing metabolism and unwanted pounds (as well as cravings for high carbohydrates and sugar-laden snacks).
But there’s a simple solution courtesy of Mother Nature. Eating vegetables rich in nitric oxide such as spinach, carrot, bok choy or mustard greens and removing temptation—think too many potato chips and chocolates—can help keep winter weight gain at bay.
Vitamin D Deficiency
If bones are achy, could it be the side effects of age or possibly arthritis? Are sleep patterns feeling off or are you becoming an insomniac? Staying inside most of the time and feeling blah? Sweating excessively but not exercising or overheated?
All of these are signs of Vitamin D deficiency. A visit to the doctor can help confirm whether you need a dose of sunlight, and a side of nutrition such as saltwater fish: tuna, salmon, sardine and swordfish are great sources of vitamin D.
Strategies to Combat Seasonal Depression
For those of us who are prone to winter blues and want to combat the lack of light, here are three strategies to make the cup feel half full rather than half empty:
1. Change Your Schedule
Increase light exposure by getting up early. Greet the day when the sun rises, an optimal choice to keep the circadian rhythms geared to as much daylight as possible. Consider timing your daily schedule to a different time zone.
If you live in the Pacific Time Zone, shift to Mountain Time Zone, to gain the mental and physical benefits of an hour earlier. Plus a bonus: finish work earlier.
2. Light Therapy
When light is minimal and the outdoor temperatures make it hard to be outside for any length of time, SAD therapy lights can make a difference. Spend 10 to 30 minutes each morning with the light to help “trick” the body into thinking its sunlight and get all those functions working better to help you feel better.
Another option—using a dawn simulator or a sunrise alarm clock, which slowly lights up the room to imitate a sunrise. A study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine saw many positive benefits for those with SAD to start the day with a dawn simulator.
Don’t try to extend the daylight too much with bright lights on after the sun goes down. Keep to the same bedtime and try to avoid too much blue light, emitted from computers and mobile phones in the hours before bed. Put down that phone, and for those who like to an e-reader or tablet for reading, install a blue light filter app to reduce the exposure.
Staying Mentally Strong
Final words to always remember. When the sun is out, get outside. Whether it’s leaving the home office or escaping the work pod, step outside and bask in the daylight. Even a few minutes a day can make a difference to body and mind.
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