Here in the Phoenix area, we enjoy abundant sunshine all year long. This should be a really good thing for those suffering from depression. But is sunlight really enough to lift your mood, especially if you’ve been feeling down for weeks?
It’s true that sunlight can ease the effects of depression, but the sun’s beams should not be seen as a miracle cure. Other steps may be needed to help you cope with the symptoms you are experiencing. Here’s what we know about sunlight, mood disorders and the limits of light therapy as an answers for depression’s debilitating symptoms.
The science of sunshine and mental health
A sunny day may do more than improve your outlook. Studies show it actually increases levels of a natural antidepressant in your brain.
This substance, known as serotonin, has been called nature’s own feel-good drug. The body generates serotonin naturally – and exposure to sunlight is one of the triggers that boost serotonin levels in the brain.
Researchers say these findings are especially significant for those who frequently feel depressed in the winter months when there’s relatively less sunlight. This pattern is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
People with SAD suffer symptoms similar to those facing major depression. These include difficulty concentrating, low energy, loss of interest in daily activities, moodiness, and sleeping to excess.
In one study, samples were taken from 101 healthy men year-round and compared with various weather factors, such as temperature, rainfall, hours of bright sunlight, and atmospheric pressure.
Researchers found that regardless of the season, the turnover of serotonin in the brain was affected by the amount of sunlight on any given day. Levels of serotonin were higher on bright days than on overcast or cloudy ones. In fact, the rate of serotonin production in the brain was directly related to the duration of exposure to bright sunlight.
It’s good to keep in mind that SAD is simply a form of depression that follows seasonal patterns. Some people feel depressed even