The Big Idea
I know that I am solar powered. What do I mean? I mean I work best when I have had regular access to clear, fresh air accompanied by sunshine. This doesn’t have to warm, just bright light.
It has been known since ancient times that sunlight can have a big impact on our senses of wellbeing and can even be therapeutic. Obviously too much can also be damaging. Moderate exposure to early morning sunlight seems to have the most benefit on mood, sleep and sense of wellbeing.
Got it…What’s the Science?!
Our brains are incredibly specialised for visual processing and our eyes, although not as sensitive as other animals, are still very receptive to light. As we have already mentioned in our Instagram Lives, we have a relatively small nucleus of multiple circadian oscillator neurones at the cross-over of optic nerves behind our eyes that together are called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN). This SCN is our master circadian (day) clock who’s cells seem very sensitive to light levels – even when our eyes are closed, that set our daily body-clock and day-night / wake-sleep rhythm.
Via the optic nerves running from our eyes light literally stimulates our brain and leads to activity in lots of different parts of our brain – in fact most of the back parts of our brain our involved in visual processing. But that’s not the only part of our body that is light sensitive. Our skin is also receptive to sunlight, allowing us to make vitamin D which keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy. UV light exposure to our skin is also linked with release of a Nitric Oxide which is beneficial to our blood pressure and cardiovascular system.*
So taken together we are very light sensitive and receptive creatures.
Season Affected Disorder (SAD) (we don’t like the disorder name) is a type of depression that many of us experience recurrently at certain times of the year: most notably the winter months in in further northern or southern latitudes. Depression is a low mood which lasts over an extended period of time. Symptoms of SAD include lack of energy, difficulty in concentrating, not wanting to be with people, sleep issues, lower libido (sex drive), feelings of despair and / or changes in appetite and eating.
Now like so many disorders, SAD is at one end of a spectrum or continuum of ‘normal’ health. So even if you don’t clinically suffer SAD, it is very common to experience mild ‘symptoms’ when the days are dark and the nights are long.
The good news is research by medics and scientists suggest that only moderate amounts of sunlight are needed to ward off the negative impacts of a lack of sunlight can have. It is known that those that work outside, especially also in winter, are much less likely to suffer from SAD or SAD like symptoms. Also, widely available artificial daylight bulbs (those that have a higher blue light component than normal electric bulbs) can be used to provide a cost-effective way of giving those brains that live away from daylight for any protracted time access to their fix of sunlight. These are sometimes called lightboxes or SAD lamps.** With as little as 15 – 20 minutes of bright real or artificial daylight needed each day to ward off the negative impacts that the lack of light can cause. Light is the primary Zeitgeber (a repeating rhythmic phenomenon that affects our circadian rhythm) that helps ensure our body clock stays in sync with our day-night; wake-sleep cycles – which is important in setting the healthy rhythms of our days and bodily functions.
The science doesn’t stop there!
We know that light exposure is also associated with the release of the happy hormone and neurotransmitter serotonin in your brain. As does beta endorphin which makes us feel better too. So there are number of direct links between light, our brains and happiness (even close to euphoria).
The use of daylight (artificial sunlight) bulbs have also been shown to significantly improve the health and wellbeing of dementia patients – including improving their concentration.
Still not convinced to the benefits of sunlight?
Research looking at hospital stays over 15 years, have shown that hospital stays are proportionally lower in patients who were staying closer to a window. Even more than this, some mental health patients on the east (sunrise facing) side of a hospital are even more likely to recover more quickly and be discharged quicker than those on the westerly side of a hospital (sundown facing).
These are lots of examples of how exposure to sunlight, especially at earlier parts of our waking hours, helps us feel more in sync with the day and ourselves, raising our sense of wellbeing and even improving our ability to concentrate. Conversely reducing exposure to blue wavelengths of light, like from computer, phone and tablet screens later at night are to avoided if possible (we will look at this in another tip).
So this week’s top tip is to try and take time to get some daylight each morning. As little as 15 minutes should be sufficient even in the winter months. Perhaps you could combine this with next week’s tip (tip #5), some deliberate, mindful breathing.
* Of course too much sunlight (via the accompanying UV) exposure is well know to be linked with skin cancers, so obviously show restraint and sensibly use a sunscreen / sunblock on your skin (consider your skin type and consult a health professional if in any doubt) and always avoid looking directly at the sun (even with sunglasses on). We also strongly dissuade the use of UV beds or lights.
** Always check that daylight bulbs and lightboxes are UV protected / filtered – this should be certified on the product.
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Other than being careful of protracted exposure to ultraviolet (UV) from sunlight without suncream on – what’s not to like about this one!?*
*There is a very rare condition called Xeroderma pigmentosum (XP) which leads to really extreme sensitivity to sunlight due cells not being able to repair cellular DNA damaged by UV and other environmental stressors.