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How does daylight affect our mental health?

October 29, 20233 min read

Many of us instinctively know that getting out in daylight makes us feel better.  But why?  And how significant is the effect?

One key fact is that when sunlight enters your eyes, it stimulates the part of your retina that activates the production of serotonin in the brain.  Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that acts as a hormone and plays many roles in the body including regulating mood, emotions, appetite and digestion.  Exposure to bright light also activates regions of the brain that promote alertness and improve cognitive performance.  All of these have a significant impact on mental health.  It follows from this, that less daylight suppresses the production of serotonin which can lead to reduced energy levels and a reduction in mood.

Add to this the impact on our circadian rhythms and the production of melatonin, an essential hormone in stimulating sleep.  Research suggests that not getting enough natural light during the day can limit the production of melatonin and cause sleep problems at night.  And we all know how important sleep is for our general mood and mental health!

There has been plenty of talk about the importance of a consistent sleep schedule and good sleep hygiene for better health and wellbeing.  But did you know that any abrupt change in our sleep schedule can disrupt the body's circadian rhythm and that we may need at least a week to recover?  This can be true when the clocks change to allow for British Summer Time, especially in Autumn as the clocks go back by an hour.  If it affects you, try not to make a dramatic change to your sleeping patterns but change your timings gradually to minimise the impact.  There is also evidence to suggest that those who have existing mental health issues can be affected more by the time change and may report an increase in symptoms.

The final piece of the puzzle for me links the reduced daylight hours with typical weather conditions for this time of the year.  Together, it means we tend to spend less time outdoors so not only do we miss out on the powerful effects of natural light, we exercise outdoors less and spend less time in nature.  Unfortunately when we spend more time indoors we are usually more sedentary.  Again, this can have a negative impact on our mental health and probably our physical health too.

So it seems clear that direct exposure to daylight can have an impact on our mental health but the significance varies for each of us.  It may depend on our existing mental health and lifestyle.  Over the years I have learned that spending time outdoors being active is the best thing for managing my mental health, especially during the Winter months.  If you'd like to try something similar then perhaps try these simple suggestions to start with:

  • Try to get outside first thing in the morning, ideally for a walk but a coffee by the back door is still good!

  • Take regular short breaks outside during the day, maybe combine them with your daily commute, school run or tasks.

  • If you can't get outside, try to spend time by a window.

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