An especially common fantasy many of us have in the fall and winter is to imagine ourselves on a nice sunny beach with no worries to speak of other than perhaps forgetting to put sunscreen everywhere.
Whatever works to help you get through the gray and cold until spring comes along, right? It’s not just the weather that often causes stress this time of year, but everything associated with it: rain, snow, ice, and coooolld. Roads are dangerous and even sidewalks. Too much time shoveling and looking for lost gloves.
The good news is that you don’t need the entire sunny beach scenario to feel great – you actually just need the sun.
More and more mental health research is confirming that exposure to natural sunlight – and everything included in it – can do all sorts of helpful things to your mind and body.
This includes increasing the amount of Vitamin D in your body, as well as more of the hormones melatonin and serotonin.
A lack of sunlight can reduce both of these hormones, resulting in the tired, unhappy, unmotivated and blah feeling many of us have between October and March.
Some have even stronger feelings of unhappiness and fatigue, which moves beyond “the blues” or “a little down” into the realm of actual depression. Clinically, depression is defined as similar feelings of sadness that lasts for at least two weeks at a time.
Weather-related depression and related mood changes even has a name: Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short. It describes how our body’s rhythms can be affected by changes in the weather, not to mention the physical challenges of winter plus mental stress of the holidays.
This becomes more prevalent the farther one gets from the equator, where there are longer stretches of cold weather and darkness. (North Dakota or Michigan vs. Texas or California, for instance.)
Because more information is always being learned about SAD and depression in general, medical pros have come up with different strategies to reduce the symptoms of SAD.
This includes diet, such as lighter meals vs. heavier fare and exercising at least 30 minutes a day also helps, even if it’s just a walk vs. a full work-out.
Taking advantage of existing sunlight also helps, such as keeping curtains open during the day or moving furniture so your desk or chair is closer to the window.
Those who aren’t able to sneak away to a sunny location regularly can also make do with special light therapy boxes intended to provide useful healing rays that produce similar spectrum of light.
These aren’t as powerful as pure sunlight – they commonly start at 2,500 lux, compared to 4,000 lux on a partly cloudy day or a 50,000 lux on a clear day, but they still can provide benefits and increase hormone levels when used regularly.
Optimally, light boxes should be used in the morning to help sync the sleep/wake cycle, as opposed to the evening, since it could be too stimulating and make it difficult to fall asleep. They also should be used regularly, even daily, to make sure levels stay high and don’t dangerously dip.
People with questions about possible treatment options for depression, including light therapy, are encouraged to talk to their general health provider or a mental health expert.