Summer sun for winter blues!

news: Summer sun for winter blues!

WHILE FULLY recognising that long-term overexposure to the sun and burning can result in skin cancer, premature ageing and wrinkling in some cases, the science of heliotherapy supports the fact that the sun also offers many benefits.

Sunlight helps the body to heal wounds and injuries, and it was said that soldiers in World War II healed and survived much better when their open wounds and broken bones were exposed to sunlight.

The treatment of disease by exposing the body to sunlight, known as heliotherapy, is still widely used. Dermatologists use heliotherapy for the treatment of acne, psoriasis and other skin disorders. It is also used for muscular stimulation and relaxation, and is considered an effective tool for boosting the body’s immune system.

The maternity wards of most major hospitals also use heliotherapy for the treatment of hyperbilirubinemia (neonatal jaundice), a condition found in over 60 per cent of prematurely born infants.

In a recently published exploratory study, exposure to sunlight was found to reduce mortality from Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Depending on the degree of sunlight exposure, the risk of death from MS was reduced by up to 76 per cent. The authors proposed no theory on the precise mechanism of action in this reduction.

I feel SAD

Heliotherapy is the only known cure for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a cyclic mood disorder caused by sunlight deprivation during the autumn and winter months. SAD is much more than the winter blues, it is a type of depressive disorder.

What causes SAD is unclear, but this seasonal depression and mood variation is known to be related to how much sunlight you receive – it usually begins when you’re a young adult and it is more common in women than in men.

Although SAD can affect people anywhere, it becomes more common the farther north you live, perhaps because these areas of the planet experience decreased daylight for months at a time. Now, some researchers are concluding that greater exposure to summer sun may help reduce mood problems during the winter months that follow, so spending time basking in the sun may be more important than you think. Sure, it’s a sensual pleasure and brightens your day, but far beyond that, the summer sun may help you avoid winter depression. For people with SAD, this need for light takes on greater significance as light may be instrumental in treating potentially debilitating symptoms of the disorder.

In the depths of winter, you may turn your face to the afternoon sun, seeking out what little light filters through fading grey skies. You may throw open the blinds, leave lights on throughout your home or even head south for a holiday… anything for a little more light!

A chemical reaction

Your mood is influenced by a delicate balance between sunlight, melatonin (the sleep hormone) and serotonin (the hormone associated with wakefulness and elevated mood). As darkness falls, your melatonin levels naturally increase and, as the morning light emerges, melatonin levels decrease.

Serotonin levels increase when you’re exposed to bright light, a major reason why moods tend to be more elevated during the summer. This hormone is the basis of today’s most popular and successful antidepressant drugs, called Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). These drugs work by helping naturally produced serotonin stay in the bloodstream longer, keeping your mood and energy levels higher.

It is well known that bright light therapy can bring quick benefits to people with depression or SAD, because light affects the melatonin-serotonin system and elevates mood. Light therapy, also called phototherapy, has been used to treat SAD since the early 80s.

In fact, some researchers are concluding that light therapy may help to alleviate SAD symptoms faster than antidepressant drugs. In a recent review of light therapy clinical trials, scientists reported that light therapy benefits not only SAD patients but also people suffering from other forms of depression.

The study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, also concluded that patients who undergo both light and drug therapy could get the greatest benefits because the two therapies may enhance each other.

The possibility that sunlight exposure in the summer could impact how you feel months later was researched by scientists from the University of Helsinki in Finland, concluding that getting more exposure to sunlight during the summer may help you build up a store of cholecalciferol that lasts through the autumn. All this cholecalciferol apparently spurs your body to produce more vitamin D during the darker winter months, which leads to higher serotonin levels during the winter.

So, the amount of serotonin you have in the winter is determined by your exposure to light the previous summer, and soaking up more sunlight in the summer will increase your chances of preventing or reducing depression during the winter.

Next winter need not have to be all gloom. It could depend on what you do this summer…

Best health wishes,

Dr. Maria Alice

Consultant in General and Family Medicine

Director – Luzdoc International Medical Service Tel. 917 811 988