If you have ever watched a depressing movie set in the far northern hemisphere where the dark winters seem to last forever, you can probably see a connection between a lack of sunlight and depression, but it is actually a well-known scientific fact that not enough exposure to sunlight can lead to a low mood and sunlight depression is a recognised phenomenon.
Why does a lack of sunlight sometimes lead to depression?
For most of us, waking up to a bright sunny day is a major mood booster. There is nothing worse that getting up on a dark, gloomy November morning, but when the sun is out and the sky is blue, we find it far easier to bounce out of bed and get through the day with a smile on our faces.
But although sunlight feels good on our skin and gives us a nice golden tan, there is a lot more going on beneath the surface than a simple feel-good factor. Sunlight leads to higher levels of a chemical in the brain called serotonin, and serotonin plays a very important role in moderating moods and energy levels.
Research has shown that the amount of sunlight we are exposed to, irrespective of all other factors, including the season and environmental variables, can have a major effect on the levels of serotonin in our brain—and the lower the serotonin levels, the more likely we are to suffer from the effects of depression.
How is our mood affected by sunlight?
Our moods are affected by many things, not least the complex relationships between chemicals in our brain at any given time. As night falls, levels of melatonin rise and slow our energy levels down in preparation for sleep, but when the sun comes up again, melatonin falls and levels of serotonin rise, lifting our mood and increasing energy levels. However, when we are exposed to less sunlight (either because the days are shorter or because we are stuck indoors for long periods of time), levels of melatonin rise while serotonin levels fall.
Can taking extra serotonin help to combat the effects of sunlight depression?
Sunlight itself is a very powerful natural antidepressant, but many modern antidepressants are based on the effects of serotonin. Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibiters, also known as SSRIs, help to keep serotonin levels in the blood higher by slowing the process whereby serotonin is naturally broken down. Light therapy can also help reduce the effects of sunlight depression.
Natural self-help techniques for reducing the symptoms of sunlight depression
Unless you live in the far north where the winters are characterised by very few daylight hours, it is advisable to spend as much time outdoors enjoying some natural daylight as you can. Experts recommend at least twenty minutes outdoors per day, preferably doing some form of exercise, as this can help to combat the effects of depression caused by a lack of sunlight. It is also a good idea to maximise your exposure to sunlight over the preceding summer (as long as you adhere to sun safety protocol), as this can also reduce your risk of depression during the winter months.