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Good light: Psychological benefits of sunlight

The sun is a superior source of vitamin D. Just like with anything else, however, the absorption of vitamin D is dependent on a number of factors. Age and geographics are two of the most important factors.

Surfing gives hope to Brazilians with disabilities
Brazilian surfer Miguel Almeida, who has vision problems, rides a wave during a training in the Adapted Surf School at Gonzaga Beach, in Santos, Sao Paulo, Brazil on June 2, 2021 - Copyright AFP Sajjad HUSSAIN
Brazilian surfer Miguel Almeida, who has vision problems, rides a wave during a training in the Adapted Surf School at Gonzaga Beach, in Santos, Sao Paulo, Brazil on June 2, 2021 - Copyright AFP Sajjad HUSSAIN

Summer brings longer days, which means more time to spend outdoors. While many people experience a feel-good feeling that spending time outdoors brings, there is a psychological basis to this, as well as a physiological importance in relation to Vitamin D.

Dr. Teralyn Sell, a brain health expert, looks at mental and brain health benefits of getting adequate sunshine exposure.

As she explains to Digital Journal: “Spending time in the sun is essential for good physical and mental health. Vitamin D is a hormone that our body makes and it is also an essential nutrient that we can get from food.  As we age, however, our body begins to make less and less on its own so it’s important to look for different sources of vitamin D.”

Expanding on this, Sell adds: “It is now known that Vitamin D helps create strong bones, has an impact on the reduction of inflammation, and can reduce cancer cell growth.  Vitamin D is also an essential nutrient cofactor that is needed for amino acids to convert to neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.  Vitamin D is important for physical and mental well-being.”

In terms of specific mental health matters, Sell extolls the advantages of sunlight. She provides for Digital Journal  readers three outdoor, sun-packed activities that can help boost mood and improve mental health. These are:

Activity #1: Head to the beach!

Not only will you get your vitamin D recharge but ocean water is chock full of minerals. Not only are those minerals good for your skin but they are particularly good for mental well-being.  Magnesium in particular is an excellent calming mineral and a nutrient cofactor for your brain chemicals.

Activity #2: Go for a walk!

Walking is an excellent, low-impact way to get moving. All you need is a decent pair of shoes and socks and off you go! Want to amp it up a bit? Head to a local national park and go for a hike. You will breathe in the fresh air and get those endorphins pumping. Not only that, but that reward pathway of dopamine will tell you ‘hey, let’s do that again!’. 

Activity #3: Try something new!

Recently, we went on a canoe trip to dig for shark teeth in a river. The excitement we had leading up to the adventure was endorphin pushing. The adventure didn’t end there… when we got home we talked about the adventure and sorted through the treasures we found. All of this was a connecting experience and one that fired all the neurotransmitters. Can’t go hunting for shark teeth? Try geocaching!

Dr. Teralyn Sell also makes two recommendations for a day out in the sun that can help keep both a person’s mood and energy up:

Tip #1: Carry water with you!

Don’t forget that hydration is key! Our body relies on hydration for our organs to function properly, and that includes your brain. Make sure you pack extra water and start hydrating before you leave and after you return.

Tip #2: Bring snacks!

If you are gone for longer than 2-3 hours (on a low impact adventure) make sure you bring protein snacks. Not only will protein snacks help keep your blood sugar in balance, but they will also reduce your stress load and fuel your brain’s neurotransmitters. If you are doing a high-impact adventure, make sure you fuel up frequently!

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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