The shortest day of the year is coming up. Everybody knows that lack of sunlight can make some people depressed or sad. But is this true for everyone? And what about temperature, cloudy days, pollution, and rain? Don't these contribute to how we feel emotionally? Researchers recently looked at this problem and came up with an amazingly simple answer.
The only weather change that influences our emotional status is the amount of time between sunrise and sunset.
The researchers studied 16,452 university students and linked how they were feeling on different days with several different factors. These included the time between sunrise and sunset, temperature, cloudy days, rainy days, and heavily polluted days. The only one of these factors that was able to predict emotional distress was the amount of daylight. "That's one of the surprising pieces of our research," said Mark Beecher, clinical professor and licensed psychologist at Brigham Young University Counseling and Psychological Services. "On a rainy day, or a more polluted day, people assume that they'd have more distress. But we didn't see that. We looked at solar irradiance, or the amount of sunlight that actually hits the ground. We tried to take into account cloudy days, rainy days, pollution ... but they washed out. The only thing that was really significant was the amount of time between sunrise and sunset."
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And another surprising thing was that the increase in emotional distress that happens when there are fewer hours of sunlight happens to everyone. Not just people who have been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder. When the researchers looked at the tendency to suicide, they found the same thing. People were more likely to be suicidal when the hours of sunlight were lower. According to the conclusion of the study, "Seasonal increases in sun time were associated with decreased mental health distress."
So why does a decrease in sunlight increase the likelihood of emotional distress? Nobody knows. But it may have something to do with vitamin D, melatonin, and serotonin. All three of these natural substances are affected by sunlight hours. And all three are also implicated in our emotional status. So, if you are feeling depressed or sad during the winter months one thing you can try is to take enough vitamin D to get your levels up around 60-70 ng/ml along with 10 mg of melatonin before bed and 100 mg of 5-HTP. 5-HTP can increase serotonin levels.
Yours for better health,
Frank Shallenberger, MD
Beecher ME, Eggett D, et al. Sunshine on my shoulders: Weather, pollution, and emotional distress. J Affect Disord. 2016 Nov 15;205:234-238.