The winter months are typically challenging for the better part of the population, especially for those in the northern latitudes and in areas with a significant percentage of overcast days. Most anyone would proclaim that they feel comparatively better in the summer months than they do in the winter months. Likely the main reason for this has to do with the amount of sunlight they are receiving.
This is a very involved and detailed subject, but for this discussion we will paint with a relatively broad brush. We are directly affected by sunlight or lack thereof in two general ways: both by the amount of sunlight reaching the back of the eyes and the amount of sunlight reaching our skin. The lack of sunlight in one or the other of these areas or both can negatively affect our mental and physical well being, and contribute to a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.
Individuals dealing with SAD usually complain of symptoms such as: Depression, mood swings, excessive sleep (yet lack of quality sleep), or conversely insomnia, overeating especially on sweets and carbohydrate rich foods, weight gain, lack of energy, low libido, suppressed immune system, low body temperature, etc.
Our Circadian Rhythm (the bodies’ internal clock) is affected by the amount of bright sunlight taken in through the eyes. When we fail to receive adequate amounts of this healthy light on a daily basis it adversely affects our pineal gland and the production of the hormones Melatonin and Serotonin. The result is, Melatonin is overproduced, sleep patterns are disrupted and our physical wellbeing is compromised. Serotonin is under-produced and depression and other psychological negatives set in.
Inadequate amounts of sunlight reaching the skin can result in low levels of vitamin D, in particular vitamin D3 which is made as a result of a chemical reaction in the skin when exposed to direct sunlight. Vitamin D affects the whole body and mind and is critically important for improving and maintaining overall health and wellbeing both physical and emotional. Vitamin D can be taken in through diet mainly in the form of vitamin D2. Some good sources of vitamin D2 would be that of fish oils, egg yolks, butter, dandelion greens, and parsley. Vitamin D3, which is more biologically active and therefore more beneficial than vitamin D2, is difficult to get in adequate amounts through diet alone. Therefore natural sunshine on the skin is typically necessary.
Perhaps the best way to lift ones’ spirits in the winter is to go outside and get daily doses (20 to 30 minutes) of unprotected sunlight through the eyes and on exposed skin(face, neck and hands is adequate coverage). This means no sunglasses and no sunscreen. If daily is not an option, then at least 3 to 4 times a week. But this is easier said than done. With winter days as short as they are many of us go to work when it’s dark and come home when it’s dark, and while at work we are inside all day. And when we do have some free time to go outside it might be overcast. Therefore we need to be a little more creative. Two good options are Full Spectrum Light Therapy and UVB Sunlamp Therapy.
Full Spectrum Light Therapy consists of looking directly at or in the direction of light that has specific characteristics similar to noon day sun on a clear day. Mainly the light needs to be at least 5,000 lux to preferably 10,000 lux. It needs to have a color similar to sunshine of 5,000 to 6,000 kelvin and a color rendering index(CRI) of approx. 95%. Depending on the manufacturer, some lights are designed to look directly at or to be used as task lighting, in which case you would not look directly at but rather in the direction of the light at a prescribed distance.
UVB Therapy consists of positioning a UVB sunlamp to shine on exposed skin again at a prescribed distance and length of time. Natural sunlight is made up of UVA, UVB and UVC ultraviolet light. The aspect of sunlight responsible for vitamin D3 production is UVB. UVA is typically what is used in tanning beds therefore they are not a good option for vitamin D3 production. UVB light cannot adequately pass through glass or plastic therefore it’s not possible to get good UVB exposure from sunlight through a house or car window for example. But through that same window it would be possible to get enough bright light for Full Spectrum Light Therapy.
There is good reason why we feel better and our spirit is lifted when the sun is shining. Sunlight is perhaps natures’ best medicine. When the sun shines, soak it up and when you can’t get the sun consider light therapy in its place and drive away the Winter Blues.
Written by DMK of Seven Grains