At the time of this writing, we’re going on the fourteenth consecutive day of gray skies here in Iowa. The weather folks tell us we’ll hit seventeen before there’s even a chance the sun will rear its gorgeous head. When that day arrives, I envision all of us standing outside with our faces to the sky, smiling like we’ve never smiled before, our arms reaching up as if to bring the sun that much closer.
But that day isn’t here just yet. Everywhere I look—including the mirror—I see people who seem a bit grumpy, a bit more reserved. We’re just not our normal selves. It got me to wondering what this lack of sunshine is doing to our brains? The answer, it appears, has a lot to do with reduced levels of serotonin.
Among other things, serotonin is a mood-boosting hormone produced by the body. And, as it turns out, there’s a direct correlation between exposure to sunlight and serotonin levels. In The Healing Sun, an enlightening (yup, I said it) book by Richard Hobday, PhD, the author explains what happens when sunlight hits our eyes and stimulates our retinas. First, nerve impulses travel along the optic nerve and interpret what we see. Second, and this is key, some of the nerve impulses keep going until they reach the brain’s hypothalamus gland. This causes a chain reaction: serotonin is released, and we feel good.
Sans sunshine, we humans don’t feel nearly as good. There’s a reason why people with a positive outlook on life are said to have “sunny” dispositions. The sun truly enables us to move through the day with a more upbeat attitude. Thank you, Sun!
When the sun is lost behind those clouds, however, I notice that my energy level is lower. This affects my motivation to get things done and makes my brain feel a little foggy. (Don’t you love meteorological puns?) Low serotonin levels, just like a lack of sunshine, can explain decreased energy as well.
When your body produces serotonin, it simultaneously suppresses the production of the hormone melatonin. In case you haven’t heard, melatonin is associated with getting a good night’s sleep. If your pineal gland is busy secreting melatonin, your body thinks it’s time for sleep.
In a nutshell, this is your brain sans sunshine:
Lower serotonin levels = higher melatonin levels = sleepy & slightly grumpier Paula.
A vitamin D supplement or good quality cod liver oil can help. Normally, the body produces its own vitamin D when sunlight irradiates the cholesterol in your skin. But studies are now showing a link between vitamin D deficiency and depression, or symptoms that look like depression: fatigue, guilt, worthlessness, irritability, insomnia, decreased appetite, loss of interest in regular activities, persistent sadness, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide. Yep, sounds depressing.
So what can you do about any of this, besides reminding yourself that the sun has to come out eventually?
Sun or no sun, it’s still a good idea to get outside every day. Even if there’s no chance those golden rays will peak through the cloud cover, the fresh air alone can make you feel better. And since exercise is a mood enhancer as well, taking a walk outside can be twice as beneficial on those gray days.
Also make sure your menu is filled with nutrient dense foods and either cod liver oil or a vitamin D3 supplement. You may be tempted to lean on convenience foods when your energy level is low, but chances are good this will only make things worse. As Monica Corrado explains in her blog post “Nutrient Dense Foods and Mental Health,” choosing things as simple as grass-fed butter or pastured eggs can have a big impact on your mental health.
Light therapy may be another beneficial option, though there are conflicting opinions on whether light therapy lamps can help or not. My theory is that you should give it a try if you’re drawn to it. The important thing is that you find what works for you, not the masses.
Your mental health is not something to take lightly. If you’re feeling helpless and not sure what to do about it, find someone who can help, and don’t give up until you’ve found the right person for you.
Gray days can happen any time of the year, and, to varying degrees, they can bring a person down. During these stretches, it’s important to look for alternative ways to keep your spirits up.
How do you keep things in check when the sun refuses to shine?
Image from iStock/hobo_018.