by Dr. Will Cole
After a long cold dreary winter, few things feel better than warm sunshine, longer lazier days, and the relaxed, cheerful, kick-back attitude that comes with summertime. As a functional medicine practitioner who often consults via webcam, I see this summer-loving attitude no matter where my patients live. But is it just a mood change, or are there actual, physiological benefits to the sunnier season? Actually, there really is science behind the benefits of summer. Let’s take a look:
1. Sunlight cheers you up.
Shorter, darker fall and winter days can lead to SAD or seasonal affective disorder, a condition that affects about 6 percent of people severely, causing depression, and about 20 percent more mildly. SAD is four times more common in women, but fortunately it is alleviated by longer, sunnier days, come spring and summer. One mechanism for this is the brain’s ability to produce more serotonin, that feel-good neurotransmitter, with increased exposure to sunlight. Full-spectrum lights can treat SAD during wintertime – ask your doctor about getting a prescription for these lights.
2. Seasonal food boosts your mood.
All the best fruits and vegetables are fresh, ripe, and ready to eat during the warmer months and are much more likely to be available locally, through farmers markets and local farms or your very own backyard or porch garden. That means people tend to eat more produce in the summer, and therefore get more vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients that boost immune function and mood.
3. The sunshine vitamin feeds your brain.
When your skin is exposed to sun, it starts synthesizing good ol’ vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, which is responsible for the proper workings of hundreds of different pathways that control your mood, immune system, and brain function. Every single cell of your body needs vitamin D to do its best work, and there is no better time to bask in that vitamin producing sunshine than in the summer.
4. Nature calls.
Nature heals, and that’s a fact. When it’s cold, people spend more time inside – another fact. But nature calls, and when you answer that call, you will feel better. One study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrated that when a group of people walked for 90 minutes in nature they reported fewer negative thoughts compared to the group who walked in the city. Functional MRI brain scans also revealed that the nature walkers had less activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that plays a role in mood disorders and negative thoughts than the city walkers. So city folk, look for a park!
5. Fresh air fights viruses.
Poorly ventilated rooms are more likely to foster the cold virus, which also tends to spread more during colder months. Other studies from the NIH found that the flu virus actually became tougher during winter.
6. More sun means better sleep.
The presence and absence of sunlight talks to your brain’s pineal gland, telling it to slow down the production of that sleepy-time hormone melatonin when it’s light, and increase production when it’s dark. When the dark hours are longer, and you are outside in the sunlight less often, it can be harder to wake up in the morning, and you may feel sleepier during the day. This can also leave you with less melatonin production at night, reducing sleep quality because your pineal gland isn’t getting those natural signals.
7. Genes adjust to the seasons.
About 25% of your DNA actually changes with the seasons, according to one fascinating study published in the scientific journal Nature. The study found that during the winter months, DNA changes seemed to be geared toward preparing for increased exposure to viruses. In the summer, different sets of genes were turned on that were more geared toward blood sugar balance, perhaps in anticipation of all that delicious summer produce. This summer change helps calm cravings and burn off winter fat, too.
8. Sun chills out over-reactive immune responses.
Sunlight is sometimes used to treat auotimmune diseases of the skin, like psoriasis, because sun exposure can actually help suppress an overactive immune system. This may be because sun exposure increases white blood cells, which help fight disease and defend the body against infection.
Since you can’t stop winter from coming, does all this summer awesomeness mean you should move to a warm climate for an everlasting summer? Don’t get that one-way ticket to the tropics just yet. One study found that people were no happier in southern California than in the cold, cloudy, snowy, rainy Midwest, even though Midwesterners complained more about the weather.
Other studies point to the fact that while suicide rates are higher in the Arctic circle, they are actually even higher in warmer South Korea than in icy Scandinavian countries. Speaking of Scandinavians, they are listed as some of the happiest people in the world, despite their gloomy cold weather, comparatively. Must be all the hygge. Another factor may be the genetics of different populations, which could impact such biochemical functions as vitamin D metabolism. Another thing to consider is the diet of very happy people who live in colder, cloudier parts of the world, as traditional diets consist of a lot of wild-caught fatty fish – rich in vitamin D.
So do the seasons play a role in your mood, energy, and health? Absolutely, but they are far from the only factor, and are not nearly as important as dietary choices, activity level, family and social bonds, and attitude.
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