John Ernst, PhD, LPC
HERE COMES THE SUN
Do you ever wonder why summer puts people in better moods? Some obvious reasons are more comfortable temperatures, as well as the convenience of light clothing and easy mobility. We hibernate less and get outside to enjoy fun activities such as picnics, walking and bike riding. This is certainly something nice to envision until the winter doldrums in Wisconsin eventually give way to spring. But there is a lot more going on ‘behind the scenes’ in our brains during both the winter and summer months.
Our eyes are like ‘light meters’ that measure the amount of sunlight we receive. The ‘biological clocks’ in our brains fundamentally operate as if they were fueled by solar powered batteries that can run down if we aren’t exposed to enough light. Increased or decreased levels of sunlight affect our levels of melatonin and serotonin, chemicals that deliver messages to the brain.
With the onset of darkness, our pineal gland manufactures melatonin, a hormone which makes us feel tired and drowsy, thus promoting sleep. When we wake, bright light slows melatonin production. Also, when we experience sunlight at the end of our sleep cycle, our brains produce cortisol and serotonin to help us wake up. But on dark winter days, there sometimes is not enough light to ‘turn off the melatonin switch,’ so, we may still feel sluggish even when we’re awake.
In contrast, increased serotonin (a hormone/neurotransmitter) production in the brain can improve concentration and lift spirits. In fact, many of today’s antidepressant medications are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) that work by increasing the availability of serotonin to brain cells, thus helping us to feel more alert, calm and happy.
Take away some of the sunlight – as in Wisconsin winters – and you change the balance of these brain chemicals. That’s why some people in northern climates may experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during the winter months. SAD has been linked to depression, increased appetite, lack of energy, decreased interest in activities, poor concentration, and increased sleep. It affects millions of people, and millions more may suffer from a milder version, commonly known as the ‘winter blues.’
To feel better during winter, some individuals may receive relief from seasonal affective disorder through medication or psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. It also should also be noted that there has been some discussion regarding the role of vitamin D and its relationship to SAD, however this data has been mixed. What is more, some people sit in front of special light boxes to mimic being out in the sun. However, some of the benefits of natural sunlight can be obtained organically in winter through simple behavioral choices such as sitting near a window when working or having lunch, or exercising outdoors instead of at the gym.
Fortunately, summer’s naturally increased levels of sunlight reduce melatonin production and increase serotonin production, allowing many people to feel more alert and upbeat. We really don’t have to do anything special to receive these benefits in the summer because everyday activities expose us to normal levels of increased sunlight. (Remember that morning sunlight has less risk of sunburn than midday sun – we all need to be careful about our exposure to sunlight).
We should welcome the summer not only because of the more comfortable temperatures, but also because of all the things going on ‘behind-the-scenes’ in our brains: Sunny days promote natural antidepressants that can actually enhance our mood. So, enjoy the great weather and feel happy because “Here Comes the Sun.”
Copyright – 2023 – John Ernst, Ph.D., LPC
John Ernst, PhD, LPC treats children, adolescents, families, individual adults and couples in outpatient psychotherapy for diverse clinical issues. He is presently accepting new patients. To establish an appointment, please contact Dr. Ernst at 414-329-7000 and ask for him specifically to discuss your initial questions.