With summer officially here, now’s the time to take advantage of the longer days and soak up the mental health benefits of sunlight, such as increased serotonin production and Vitamin D levels, proven for lowering depression and anxiety.
Mental health expert Noel McDermott looks at how something as seemingly simple as going outside to get more sunlight is a multi-modal solution as it combines activity, social interaction, and engagement with nature and how that’s exactly how we are designed to be outside, active and social.
Sunlight increases serotonin levels
Sunlight triggers the release of hormones in the brain, namely serotonin which is associated with improved mood and well-being. Without enough exposure to the sun, your serotonin levels can lower, creating a higher risk of depression and anxiety.
Serotonin is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone and plays a crucial role in the brain and the body. It helps regulate mood, sleep patterns, libido, blood clotting, digestion, and sleep patterns and is crucial to health and well-being.
It’s part of a group of neurochemicals in the body we call DOSE – dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins- all known to play an important part in mood.
Treating anxiety/depression with serotonin
Serotonin is probably best known because, for many years now, it has been a standard mental health treatment by doctors to help people with anxiety or depression through SSRI medication.
In the UK, most will know the medication fluoxetine, which is the unbranded version of Prozac, the very famous first medication in this family of drugs. There are eight commonly prescribed SSRIs, including this one, in the UK. These medications affect how the brain works and increase the brain’s serotonin receptors’ capacity.
Noel McDermott comments: “The guidelines for treating anxiety and depression in the UK recently changed, and rather than prescribe medication automatically, NICE (the body which decides on treatments in the UK) have said the evidence is that psychological therapies should be offered for depression and anxiety first.
“The key thing about modern psychological therapy for treatment is that CBT encourages long-term behaviour change and promotes psychological knowledge. The areas of behaviour change promoted are around, for example, behavioural activation, activity, exercise, joining groups, looking at sleep hygiene, diet etc., and serotonin is significantly affected by all of those things.
“This approach to regulating your mood has a much more beneficial impact on your overall health and well-being than taking medicine; there are global health benefits.”
Tips to boost your mental health this summer
- Reduce anxiety levels. Get outdoors as much as possible, whether in the garden, a walk in the park or a hike. Actively seeking sunlight outdoors encourages exercise and social interaction and engages the biophilia effect.
- 15 minutes of exposure to sunlight is enough to reap the benefits associated with vitamin D, with direct sunlight improving our mood. Sunlight promotes higher levels of Vitamin D, which may improve depression symptoms and reduce depression rates.
- Look at your diet – serotonin is readily available in many foods associated with healthy diets (greens, fruit, fish, cheese, eggs).
- Exercise promotes serotonin, especially a mix of cardio and load-bearing activities.
In terms of thinking about serotonin and mood issues, we can look at the receptors in the brain not working from the medical/medication model or whether we are not doing enough to get naturally occurring serotonin levels up via the psychological model.
Think of it this way, our depression/anxiety is a signal from our brain/body that something needs to change in the way we are doing life to feel better, and often those ’somethings’ involve developing a healthier lifestyle and getting sunlight by going outside is one of those healthier lifestyle decisions which leads to global health improvements.
It’s about getting more bang for your buck, and by making healthy decisions, we can meet many needs at the same time, and we are likely to be able to sustain that decision in the long term as the range of DOSE reward chemicals released into our bodies is significantly greater.
Frame it this way compared to a specifically targeted medication that only works with one chemical, and the benefits are obvious. So, get outside and reap the natural mental health benefits of sunlight.