Let the Sun Shine In

Well, hallelujah, the sun finally came out! Doesn’t it seem like the first six months of 2009 were filled with just bad, unpredictable, strange weather?

As I was walking around with gloves on in May, I shouted out, "where’s your global warming now, Mr. Gore??!?!?!" We had 90 degree weather in April, we had two weeks in January where it never broke 20 degrees, the second coolest June on record (not to mention the rain), and, even now, while the weather is getting bright and sunny as it should be, I am waking up to temperatures in the fifties and throwing on a sweatshirt for my dog’s morning walk.

I can sit here and complain that I didn’t ride my bike until July when I am usually out on the first warm day in March; I can be relieved that I am saving energy by opening windows and leaving the air conditioners silent; we can all laugh about the bad weather of 2009 (and the change in title from "global warming" to, what is it…. "climate change?"), but some may also question if all that rain, cold, and gray color was more than just an inconvenience, more than just a hindrance to driving with the top down, more than a nuisance to those whose kids’ Little League games were postponed time and again.

For many years we have been aware that people are affected by the weather, the change of seasons, the differences in amount of light. Seasonal Affective Disorder has been recognized for some time, and the major treatment for this disorder is to sit in front of bright, full-spectrum lighting for a certain amount of time each day during the winter months when daylight hours are shorter. We respond to the environment, and people will often feel a lift in their mood when winter ends and days get longer. Almost all my patients lamented in some way over the awful weather we have had throughout the spring and early summer. I heard comments such as, "I feel like I live in Seattle," or women complaining that they didn’t know what to wear in the morning because the weather was so crazy, but now people are more cheerful because we’ve had a couple of weeks without significant rain.

Our bodies’ rhythms are dependent in many ways on the natural rhythms of nature. Most of us are on a 24-hour cycle, which makes sense since so is the earth. Sunlight plays a huge part in our sleep-wake cycle, and shift workers and those with jet lag can often reset their clocks by adjusting the amount of light in the evening and morning to trick the body back into a routine. Light enters our brains through our eyes, into the optic nerve, and ends up triggering all kinds of good things in areas of our brains such as the hypothalamus which regulates primal activities such as sleep, hunger, and thirst. Blind people who have damage to the eye itself or to the optic nerve are very susceptible to sleep problems and haphazard body clocks, but those who suffer from cortical blindness, meaning their eyes are healthy but the visual cortex is damaged, don’t have the same issues because the light can still enter the brain through the eye. Interesting stuff.

Sunlight causes our bodies to produce vitamin D. When sun shines on the skin it activates a form of cholesterol that is present in the skin and converts it to vitamin D. The amount of vitamin D we produce varies depending on where we live, the time of year, how much exposure we get, and the color of our skin. We have gotten neurotic about sunblock over the years, but too much sunscreen will hinder our ability to make vitamin D. At the extreme, a deficiency of vitamin D will cause Rickets in children and bone softening in adults because we will be unable to absorb calcium. A smaller deficiency in vitamin D is thought to possibly affect mood and it may have some anticancer properties, particularly in breast and colon cancer.

For those who suffer with seasonal mood swings, high doses of vitamin D have been helpful for some people. Depressed mood is one sign of vitamin D deficiency, so it may not simply be the act of getting out on the beach that makes you feel better, but the chemical chain of events prompted by the sunlight itself. In other words, yes, I feel happier when I don’t have to bundle up and carry an umbrella because it’s just more pleasant but, inside my body I am producing vitamin D, which is causing changes to my melatonin production, which is giving me more energy, and which may also be affecting my production of serotonin and other neurotransmitters that are implicated in mood.

So now that the sun has finally returned, what is recommended for getting enough exposure to safely help your body produce what it was made to produce but without burning your skin and putting yourself at greater risk for skin cancer? Some recommend that we get out briefly, without sunscreen, twice a day. Perhaps only 15 minutes are required for fair-skinned people, up to as much as 40 minutes for those with a darker complexion who don’t burn as easily. No reputable doctor would recommend that you sunbathe without sunscreen, but taking a walk at lunch for a few minutes or sitting in the yard in the late afternoon are ways that we can expose ourselves to enough rays to build our vitamin D production. You can also get vitamin D in cod liver oil, butter, eggs, and enriched milk products. I am a firm believer that we crave what we need (I must need an awful lot of M&Ms for something or other!), and I know I sometimes find myself craving milk out of nowhere. I should really check to see if there’s a pattern to it – if I can’t get enough milk during times that the sun is absent.

For those who feel that their mood swings or depression are severe and not just feeling blue or annoyed over a stretch of bad weather, you may want to seek professional help and be assessed for therapeutic intervention, whether that would be psychotherapy, medication or vitamins, or in some cases, full- spectrum light therapy.

But even those mild feelings of irritability and sadness are real symptoms, and may run deeper than just the longing to sit on the beach or wear our summer clothes. They may be due in no small part to the lack of a very important chain reaction that starts with exposure to the sun.

Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD., practices child, adult, and family psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow.

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About the Author: Dr. Barbara Kapetanakes