For some, the winter months don't just mean extra layers and Christmas preparations. Low mood or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), caused by the decrease in sunlight hours can make this time of year difficult at best. We certainly know that we feel better when the sun is touching our skin in the summer time, but what else do you know about light? Here are some interesting facts about the effect light has on us as human beings:
Morning sunlight is important for sleep - The sooner your eyes see sunlight in the morning, the better you will sleep at night. Andrew Huberman, PhD, associate professor of neurobiology and opthalmology explains that if sunlight reaches your eyes (even if it's cloudy) soon after you wake for at least a few minutes, it triggers a neural circuit that controls the timing of the hormones cortisol and melatonin, which affect sleep. Simply put, a timer starts from first light, which sets in motion a coundown to release the hormones you need to sleep by bedtime. Going outside is better than sitting by a window as glass filters out some of the ultraviolet light that assists the clock setting - this also applies to sunglasses (please don't stare into light that hurts your eyes). Artificial lights, like the ones from your phone, television etc does not have the same effect, but if you can't get out, putting the very brightest lights on as soon as you wake up is the second best option. If you are able and have an outside space, why not try sitting outside to drink your morning tea or coffee?
Keeping lights low during the evening can help prepare the body for sleep - One of the common mistakes we make at night is exposing our bodies to bright lights that fool our bodies into believing it is still daytime and we should be alert, not winding down. We humans haven't changed much biologically since we first made our appearance on earth, but our surroundings have changed hugely! The invention of artificial light has been beneficial in many ways, but it has caused confusion for our circadian rhythm. Although not as powerful as natural light - when the bright overhead lights are still on just before bed, when we get up in the night to go to the toilet and turn the bathroom light on, when we are looking at the news, Facebook or checking the time on our mobile phone just before we close our eyes, the light is telling our bodies it is daytime and we need to be awake. Keep the lights low in the run up to bed. Use warm lamps instead of the overhead lights, try not to turn the light on in the middle of the night (be safe) and stop looking at your mobile phone/ipad/laptop/computer at least an hour before bed (longer if you can). This will help your body wind down and release hormones that help you get a good night's sleep.
Increased sun exposure improves your mood - scientific studies have found that mental health distress is found in more people during seasons with little sun exposure. In contrast, sunny days were associated with better mental health. One study found that the availability of sunshine had more impact on mood than rainfall, temperature or any other enviornmental factor. Sun exposure increases your serotonin and helps protect you against (SAD). It can also help people with anxiety and depression, especially in combination with other treatments. If you are feeling low, taking a walk outside, in nature on a sunny day, without your phone can have dramatic effects. If you are feeling low constantly, consider talking to your GP or another trained professional.
Sunlight is good for immunity - Sunlight is the primary source of vitamin D. Very little vitamin D can be found in food so moderate sun exposure is very important. Vitamin D, as well as being good for bones also has immunomodulatory effects that can improve the body's immune system.
Sunlight is important for strong bones - As well as Vitamin D, calcium is also vital for bone health. Calcium can be introduced to the body through food and drink, but did you know that getting enough sun helps your body to absorb the calcium?
Sunlight lowers blood pressure and improves heart health - When sunlight hits your skin, the body releases nitric oxide into your blood. This brings down your blood pressure, which can reduce the risk of cardiac disease and stroke. The improvement in mood sunlight can bring may also reduce your blood pressure so win win!
Light has always been a fascination to us humans. From sunlight to moonlight, from the flame to the bulb, fireworks to lightshows...how can we not be drawn to something so arresting and hypnotic? BUT, as with many things in our modern world, sometimes less is more. Years ago, we would have have lived by the natural cycles of light and dark. We can bring some of this into our current lifestyles. There is no doubt that sunlight is of benefit to us but embracing the dark is also important. We need to seize the day but we also need to relax and prepare ourselves for sleep. As with all things, balance is important, but just as crucial to our health is fitting ourselves into the nature that can still be found around us.