Your Health Questions Answered

How Does Sunlight Improve Your Mood?

In Florida, we get sunshine all year. But how does this everlasting summer have a positive impact on our mental health? Two local therapists tell us.

By Allison Forsyth September 15, 2021

Image: Kari Perrin

If you are feeling blue, the morning sunlight may be your best friend. Clinical studies have shown that exposure to sunlight can increase serotonin, your happy hormones, in the brain. Luckily for us, Sarasota has plenty of sunshine in the fall and winter months.

How can we best take advantage of our sunny home? Sarasota mental health counselor Tara Motzenbecker and Dr. Matthew Edlund from the Center for Circadian Medicine offer us some background information and tips.

How does sunlight improve our mood?

"Sunlight increases our production of serotonin," says Motzenbecker. "By increasing this, you are increasing your mood and production of melatonin at night, which makes you feel more rested. Well-rested equals better mood."

Dr. Edlund says it's when sunlight is captured by our eyes, not our skin, that the real benefits occur. When we catch a glimpse of the morning sun, a system in our brains called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (located in the hypothalamus) activates. This system helps to regulate emotions and physiological circadian rhythms, or sleeping and waking cycles.

Is sunlight helpful in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety?

"Absolutely," says Edlund. "There are clinical trials where the antidepressant Prozac is compared to receiving doses of sunlight over time, and light did better."

It is known that sunlight can help cure the woes of seasonal depression, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, for those who live in gloomy climates. However, Edlund adds that sunlight exposure can relieve other forms of depression, too.

"Connecting with nature is another aspect of it," says Motzenbecker. "Nature is grounding for us, which can reduce feelings of anxiety. The hormones and vitamin D increase our mood, thereby reducing symptoms of depression."

Why is the morning the best time of day to get sunlight?

The first reason is because the sun's rays are less harsh at dawn, limiting chances of sunburn, U.V. exposure and skin cancer. Having sunlight hit your face in the morning is also beneficial to your body's sleeping and waking cycle.

"It's also just more pleasant to walk outside on a Florida morning as opposed to afternoon," says Edlund.

How long do you need to be in sunlight for its positive effects?

"Start out with 15 minutes at a time," says Motzenbecker. Edlund adds that if you are going to exercise, like take a walk or run, 30 to 60 minutes is ideal.

"Another great thing is taking a dog for a walk," says Edlund. "You are also meeting other dogs and people, which can significantly reduce feelings of depression."

What are some ways to best take advantage of sunlight?

Edlund says if you don't work early, going to a new park or beach to walk once a week can help boost mood. Finding locations with greenery and water has a universal calming effect.

Motzenbecker adds that if you cannot get outside as often as you'd like, invest in a sun lamp. Make sure it is approved by a medical provider and research that shows that its particular light is associated with increased mood.

Edlund recommends the light box called Verilux HappyLight; sit in front of it for 30 to 60 minutes.

Other self-care tips to add to the routine?

"Writing in a journal for just two to three minutes a day can also improve mood," says Edlund.

Motzenbecker suggests listing things that you are grateful for while you are soaking up the sun's rays. Write them down or share them with a friend.

"This builds the positivity muscle in your brain," she says.

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