Hooray, the sun is finally out! I can’t count the number of times I have heard this phrase – or a variation of it- in the last few days. Even though the weather in the Netherlands can be erratic, this year it has been a long wait for some good sunny weather. Now that the sun is out, the people I see on the street and the friends I meet generally seem happier. But is it really that simple and is the sun our magic medicine for a better mental health?
First of all, let’s look at the benefits of light –both natural and artificial- in general. Research has shown that being exposed to more light during the daytime and less light during nighttime helps our internal clock to regulate our sleep wake rhythm. Especially expose to light in the morning is beneficial to your health, since it improves your mood, alertness and metabolism.
But is there an exclusive benefit to sunlight? According to numerous studies, the appropriate level of vitamin D is a key factor in helping prevent and alleviate depressive symptoms. Even as little as 10-15 minutes of sun exposure per day can give you these positive effects. Sunlight also causes the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter directly linked with mood and energy. Additionally, UVA rays generate nitric oxide in your skin, increasing blood flow and therefore energy is better absorbed. A helpful side effect here is that better blood flow causes lower blood pressure, which can be linked to reduced stress.
With the change of seasons and longer days, there is a much better chance that we get our necessary dose of sunshine. These are important findings, because they place a component of mental wellness into our own control. We recognize the importance of taking a break from our day to enjoy a walk outside, which benefits both our physical and mental state.
Researchers believe that the healing, mood-enhancing capabilities of the sun are limited, but can help in the right circumstances. So even though the sun definitely has a positive effect on our mental health, it doesn’t mean that psychological problems can be solved by catching rays.