The mood benefits of sun exposure
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06-30-15 Category: Mental Health, Therapy


The sunny setting of Southern California forms an ideal backdrop for soaking up rays, surfing and other ways of having fun. From as far back as the Beach Boys, the “SoCal” locale has become the home for enjoyable activities and leisure. While a lot of factors contribute to this regional trend, such as a close proximity to the ocean and encompassing an influential metropolis like Los Angeles, there are many other psychological processes taking place.

Some studies highlight the direct impact of sunlight in the management of or recovery from mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder. In general, academic sources state that most Americans do not receive enough vitamin D. The primary method of absorbing this vital nutrient is via exposure to the sun. When the sun’s ultraviolet rays hit a person’s skin, this helpful vitamin is manufactured within the body. It protects against cancer, bone brittleness, heart disease and many other ailments.

Another mental disorder to consider is seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This condition is marked by a significant drop in mood when the nights grow longer, the days are shorter and overcast conditions are prevalent throughout the winter months. During this period, an afflicted person will experience episodes and other symptoms of major depression. With substantial evidence building on the need for vitamin D for stable mental health, more signs link the benefits of sun exposure and the onset of seasonal affective disorder.

When a person lacks vitamin D, the outcomes are not positive. A 2009 study observed the impact of sunlight on the cognitive function of both depressed and non-depressed populations. In the case of participants exposed to lower levels of sunlight, a noticeably higher rate of cognitive impairment was observed. In fact, light has been shown to also affect brain blood flow. The movement of blood in the brain has specifically been found to improve after light-administered therapy in pre-term infants and patients diagnosed with SAD. Further, it is also associated with one’s cognitive function, especially the process involved with memory. Insufficient cerebral blood flow is a powerful predictor of decreasing cognitive functions among those with cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and Lyme disease.

Other research initiatives have discovered similar bits of knowledge. For example, multiple trials comparing the use of vitamin D supplements and placebos have been conducted over the last few decades. Results were moderately inconsistent between each experiment due to varying limitations and other factors, but a noticeable amount of successful cases showed an improved level of positivity for groups administered with vitamin D. Also, some research differentiates direct vitamin D supplementation from sun exposure. A study in 2001 applied the use of natural sunlight for hospitalized patients recovering from bipolar depression. Compared to a group without solar exposure, the exposed group experienced a substantially shorter hospital stay.

This collection of past studies demonstrated positive benefits of vitamin D in certain groups of people, but its full implications have not yet been fully explored or applied in practice. Future randomized and comparison trials need to examine the benefit of vitamin D and sunlight on health outcomes during different life stages and other specific contexts. Until then, there are multiple ways to experience the impact of this influential ingredient of life:

  • Participating in more outdoor activities during the day.
  • Eating certain foods, like fatty fish, egg yolk, fortified cereal or some types of mushrooms.
  • Drinking certain beverages, like fortified milk or orange juice.
  • Taking supplements or cod liver oil is sometimes the most direct method of consumption for those too busy to change an overall lifestyle.
  • Using UV lamps when possible.

There are endless ways people living in California can receive a healthy dose of vitamin D, especially along the bright and beautiful coast. At Sovereign Health of California, our mental health professionals promote the best practices of daily living to ensure a comprehensive and holistic sense of wellness for various demographics across the state. However, when sunlight or supplements fall short of complete psychological management, Sovereign is always available to lend an extra hand. If you or someone you love struggles with a mood disorder like depression or bipolar disorder, contact our trained consultants to detail your unique situation. Live chat online or call (866) 819-0427.

Written by Lee Yates, Sovereign Health Group writer

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