The Nashville winter shoved me deep into a dark place and piled on every ounce of self-doubt I may have left behind in the summer months. After eight years in Tennessee, I should be accustomed to the winters by now. Winter jackets look great and I bought a new pair of boots to go with my winter outfits. That should hold me over until the days stretch themselves out again. But it did not. I still have some adapting to do in a climate vastly different than that of South Florida where I spent most of my life.
Instead of blindly hypothesizing why I get so weird in the winter, I decided to figure it out. And it begins with an obvious statement: the reason we have cappuccinos, straw Panama hats, and the need for a moisturizing routine that incorporates SPF is that the sun is the main source of life on earth and all that comes with that life. Without it temperatures would drop, plants would die, we would die, straw Panama hats would shrivel, and the earth as we know it would be devoid of all the things that make us happy.
Luckily, we have the sun, and thank Ra we do because the sun also contributes in massive ways to our mental health. A research study by Shia T. Kent of the University of Alabama at Birmingham et al found that a decrease in sun exposure increased the probability of impairment in cognitive functioning in depressed participants. While this is great news for those with depression, what about those who are not depressed? Fortunately, the next factoid applies to a more general audience and it has to do with your skin making you happy.
Endorphins are those excitable hormones that are released to put your mind and body at ease. They’re released during activities like eating, exercising, and sex. Those hormones are also released when the skin is exposed to UVR (Ultraviolet Radiation). Cells on our skin called melanocytes express a fully functioning endorphin receptor system and our pigmentary system is an important stress-response element of the skin. Direct sunlight exposure to our skin has other health benefits such as stimulating Vitamin-D synthesis which improves immune functions, regulates the inflammatory response, and may help with depression.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is when mental states vary with the seasons. The mental states are marked by regular depressions in the winter and those nice, clear happy notes in the spring or summer. SAD episodes are associated with shorter daylight hours in the winter. Studies done with phototherapy have shown that there is an improvement in cerebral blood flow and that cerebral blood flow improves cognitive functioning, boosts mood, and influences alertness and vitality. All good things for your brain and the person attached to it.
Sleep is healthy. But this about how direct and indirect sunlight can positively affect your sleep cycle. When sunlight reaches in and warms your winter-worn retinas, retinal ganglion cells become stimulated and influence the secretion of melatonin. Melatonin is critical for regulating sleep-wake cycles and disrupting those cycles can lead to negative moods. When those cycles are in harmony, let us thank our lovely suprachiasmatic nucleus for functioning the way it should. The suprachiasmatic nucleus is a tiny region in the brain that is responsible for controlling circadian rhythms and is where melatonin, serotonin, and other mechanisms related to that rhythm are located.
When the sun finally came out over this great city, I noticed gaggles of people walking their dogs through the neighborhood, bikers on the greenways, and kids outside playing. The idea that life was moving and thriving after a cold and dark winter improved my mood. Allowing external sources to instill a feeling of my own well-being perplexed me as it was a new feeling. I equated it to a greater understanding and appreciation of the world now that I am thirty-six years old. Nope. It has more to do with Nicolas Guéguen’s study through the Université de Bretagne-sud. In a field experiment male and female confederates (individuals who are in the know of the experiment) accidentally dropped a glove on the ground and kept walking, unaware that they just dropped a glove. On predominantly sunny days, passers-by helped the confederates more favorably than on predominantly cloudy days. Thus, giving me perspective on why seeing people appreciating the sun made me so happy; I just wanted to pick up someone’s dropped glove.
There’s a reason songs and civilizations have used the sun as a reference point for moods. From The Beatles’ ”Here Comes the Sun” or Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” to the Egyptian’s worship of Ra, that giant, warm orb in the daytime sky is important to us on an innumerable amount of levels. Now that the sun is starting to peak out, get outside. Lie on your patio. Sprawl out on some grassy area in a park. Float in a donut-shaped tube in a stranger’s pool. Close your eyes and notice how the shining light lets you see the red color of blood flowing through your eyelids. It’s a way to remind yourself you are alive and that you made it through another winter and that you will again...after you stock up on those rays.