Spending time basking in the sun may be more important than you think. Sure, it's a sensual pleasure and brightens your day. But far beyond that, the summer sun may help you avoid winter depression.
Called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), seasonal depression and mood variation is known to be related to how much sunlight you receive. Now some researchers are concluding that greater exposure to summer sun may help reduce mood problems during the winter months that follow.
Serotonin acts as a neurotransmitter, a type of chemical that helps relay signals from one area of the brain to another. Although serotonin is manufactured in the brain, where it performs its primary functions, some 90% of our serotonin supply is found in the digestive tract and in blood platelets.
Your mood is influenced by a complex web of relationships between sunlight, melatonin (the sleep hormone) and serotonin (the hormone associated with wakefulness and elevated mood). As darkness falls, your melatonin levels naturally increase. And as the morning light emerges, melatonin levels decrease.
Serotonin levels increase when you're exposed to bright light -- a major reason why moods tend to be more elevated during the summer. This hormone is the basis of today's most popular and successful antidepressant drugs, called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These drugs work by helping naturally produced serotonin stay in the bloodstream longer, keeping your mood and energy levels higher.
Light Therapy: Better Than SSRIs?
It is well known that bright-light therapy can bring quick benefits to people with depression or SAD, because light affects the melatonin-serotonin system and elevates mood.
In fact, some researchers are concluding that light therapy may help to alleviate SAD symptoms faster than antidepressant drugs. In a recent review of clinical trials of light therapy, Dr. Daniel Kripke and his colleagues at the Circadian Pacemaker Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego reported that light therapy benefits not only SAD patients but also people suffering from other forms of depression.
The study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, also concluded that patients who undergo both light and drug therapy could get the greatest benefits because the two therapies may enhance each other.
The Summer-Winter Connection
However, few doctors have considered the possibility that sunlight exposure in the summer could impact how you feel months later. This is the subject of research by Dr. Timo Partonen and his colleagues at the University of Helsinki's National Public Health Institute in Finland.