Why Less Sunlight Negatively Impacts Mental Health

sun setting over field

Tips for minimizing the effect of major depressive disorder (MDD) with seasonal pattern this winter.

Once again, the sun has returned to setting at 5:00pm just as many are logging off computers, commuting home, or beginning nightly errands. If limited sunlight has you feeling moody or tired, you are not alone.

What role does limited sunlight play in mental health?

The brain naturally releases hormones when triggered by sunlight and darkness. Sunlight causes the brain to release serotonin, the hormone responsible for making someone feel happy, calm, and focused. Darkness signals to the brain that it is time to sleep so more melatonin is released, causing someone to feel tired.

When we don’t get enough sunlight throughout the day, the distribution of serotonin and melatonin released by the brain is off balance. Serotonin deficiency is linked with higher levels of major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern (formerly referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What is major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern?

Formerly known as SAD, major depressive disorder (MDD) with seasonal pattern is a form of depression triggered by the changing seasons.

What are the symptoms?

  • Daytime fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Increased irritability
  • Lack of interest in social activities
  • Lethargy
  • Reduced sexual interest
  • Unhappiness
  • Weight gain

Tips for Minimizing the Impact of Limited Sunlight this Winter

  • Light therapy: This treatment has proven helpful in minimizing symptoms of MDD with seasonal pattern. An artificial light source tricks the brain into thinking you are absorbing sunlight and produces serotonin.
  • Exercise: Maintaining a regular exercise schedule can help alleviate stress, manage anxiety, and boost one’s overall mood.
  • Healthy diet: Just like the body, the brain preforms its best when it is nourished by healthy foods. As the holiday season approaches, try to avoid sugary treats and processed foods.
  • Practice gratitude: Start each morning by jotting down five things you are grateful for. Doing this will help direct your thoughts into a positive mindset for the day to come.
  • Stay connected with loved ones: While this won’t increase serotonin levels in the brain, connecting with family and friends can put you in a better mood.