Doctor’s Orders? Get some sunshine!

The doom and gloom of winter is over, as spring and summer approach us. While people are getting outside and enjoying the weather, it’s much more than the budding of spring flowers and clear skies that are making people happy. In fact, there is scientific evidence that the sun has an impact on boosting moods, and IU students are experiencing this first hand.

Tim Patrick, who holds a doctorate in psychology, and is an assistant professor in the Psychology department at Indiana University offered a little more insight into the mechanics of sunny days and their impact on our moods. He explained that while the sun is an excellent source of easy-to-absorb vitamin D, it also boosts serotonin levels, as well as encourages us to get out, socialize and be active. All of this together, he said, contributes to improved happiness.

Brennan Skirzenski, 20, a sophomore at IU, recently found the time to go outside of the IMU to hammock and enjoy the sunshine.

“I find myself able to get outside more, breathe the air and see people I know. A day like today makes everyone happier,” he said.

Skirzenski also discussed the ways in which going outside creates a social environment that is hard to achieve when stuck indoors during a cloudy or rainy day.

“I think it’s a cause and effect. I think when more people are out, people feed off that social energy. It’s good to be on a saunter, and just having the universe have that randomness of you running into a friend. It just releases that social serotonin and it just really makes everyone a little cheery, seeing friends because of sunniness,” he said.

After being told to stay in lockdown during the pandemic, it is no surprise that many people are getting outside to get active, and participate in social interaction that has been missing for the past several months.

Katherine Patterson, 20, a sophomore at IU, also discussed the ways in which the sun was able to boost her mood during the isolating time of the pandemic.

“I absolutely think that it affects my mood. Because every single really good core memory I have, a lot of it is associated with sunshine, being outside, and interacting with people in a way that is a lot harder when you stay inside,” she said.

Enjoying the weather is a common theme among students. Miranda Perez, 22, junior at IU, was able to describe that the sunshine boosts her mood, but being with her friends in the sunshine does so even more.

“I like to go outside when I’m feeling down, because being in the sun really boosts my mood. Just laying and enjoying it,” she said.

While it has been made evident that IU students feel happier in the sunshine, what exactly is it about the sunny days and warmer weather that make so many of us so happy?

Patrick was able to break down what sunshine can do to enhance moods, stating that sunshine increases vitamin D, and serotonin levels.

“Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in increasing moods, so it makes sense that increasing serotonin levels is involved in increasing moods,” he said.

As Patrick explained how the sunshine boots moods, many students explained that during the winter months, they aren’t able to receive the same joy that a warm season sun can bring.

Natalia Torrez, 22, a senior at IU can attest to the ideal summer sun.

“I would much rather a sunny winter day than a cloudy winter day, because the sun. But it’s more effective in the spring or summer time than winter,” she said. “Seeing the sun helps, but it’s different being in the sun”

Perez felt the same, saying “Sunshine in the summer affects me more. When it’s in the winter I can’t enjoy going outside.”

Vitamin D

While it has been made aware that Vitamin D increases with sunlight, does it also play a hand in increasing moods? And if so, would that mean that taking store-bought vitamin D supplements can help us in the winter months when the days are short, and the sunlight is less common?

IU professor, Andrew Brown, who holds a doctorate in nutrition said, “Unfortunately, vitamin D is a hot topic right now, with people proposing it has every health-promoting benefit you can think of. However, vitamin D levels beyond what is needed to be considered in the ‘normal’ range do not seem to have much strong evidence of any additional health benefit for pretty much any outcome studied.”

Patrick says that store-bought vitamin D may not be the answer we were all hoping for.

“In order for vitamin D to be absorbed, you also need calcium. Vitamins are poorly-absorbed, anyway, so taking vitamin D supplement wouldn’t be as nearly effective. I’m not familiar with any research that vitamin D supplements would enhance mood.”

Many students stated that the winter sun does not have the same effect as a summer sun, and that the lack of sunlight during the winter months is correlated with a decrease in mood. This decrease in mood is more professionally known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Mayo Clinic’s website says “Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.”

In correlation with Patrick’s comments, vitamin D supplements are not a suggested treatment for SAD, however light therapy is. For more information on SAD please visit Mayo Clinic’s resources.

While vitamin D supplements may not be the cure to increasing moods, we know that sunshine has been proven to be. That being said, medical experts say it’s important to remember that sunshine cannot be Rx’d. Brown said, “People are always welcome to try a little sunlight to make themselves feel better, but for something like clinical depression, seasonal affective disorder, or nutrient deficiencies, treatment with appropriate expert care is important.”

Activities

Patrick also re-enforced that it might not just be the sunlight that increases moods, but the fact that there are many more enjoyable activities to do when the weather is warmer and sunnier.

“We also have to talk about what people can do, what can be done outside when it’s sunny and when it’s warm. There’s a lot of activities that coincide with nice weather, and with sunshine, that are also known to boost mood, like exercise, and activity, and socialization, and stuff like that. So yes, I think sunlight is definitely associated with boosts in serotonin, boosts in vitamin D, but there’s also a lot of other activities that go along with being outdoors and experiencing that. So, we’re more likely to be active when it’s sunny out, when it’s daylight. We’re more likely to be hang out with friends and be socializing. So, all that stuff kind of can be combined to improve mood overall,” he said.

With that being said, spring and summer are the most effective times to get out and boost your mood. Take it from IU students who have managed to find an array of different activities to keep them busy outdoors.

Torrez says that even though she is busy with work and adult life, she is still able to take the time to get outside.

“Ideally try and work outside, or take a walk, or something like that. Go do ‘outdoor things,’” she said.

Patterson was also able to attest to the array of activities she enjoys while being outside.

“Today is a beautiful sunny day,” she said. “I took the top off of my Jeep and went for a drive, in Dunn meadow there is a beautiful area to hammock, my friend Shannon loves to hammock,” she said.

Whether it’s going outside to hammock, going on a drive, or taking a walk with friends, take the time to enjoy the weather and make yourself a bit happier!

May we all channel a bit of our inner child, as Patterson did.

“When I was a little kid, I would literally just sprawl myself out on my driveway and just feel the sun. Because I don’t know, I feel like that’s the best feeling in the world, is just feeling the sun on your face,” she said.