Sunlight: how it impacts us all year round

By planetm | October 18, 2021

Human beings are intrinsically linked to the sun. Nilgin Yusuf illuminates the many ways we benefit from sunlight, all year round.

There is one day I always look forward to. I count the days and will often bring it up in conversation, reminding people that day is nearly here. It’s not my birthday or anyone else’s or any kind of anniversary. It’s in the last weekend of March when the clocks go forward, inviting another whole hour of light into our lives. It marks a turning point in the year, when the days grow visibly longer, people smile more, the parks fill with the first real flush offlowers and everything seems possible.

I used to find it vaguely irritating to change every clock and timepiece on what seemed a pointless and random date. When I worked in offices or lecture theatres, with their controlled environments and artificial light systems, the whole ‘setting the clocks forward’ seemed inconvenient and irksome. Perhaps it was because I felt less affected by the amount or quality of natural daylight, or I simply didn’t have time to think about it. But with the passing years, this has changed and I don’t think I’m unusual.

‘It gets worse as you get older,’ said a colleague of mine. ‘I monitor the hours of daylight every day. I always know when the sun will rise and set, and sometimes count the minutes down.’ Although society tries its best to turn us all into super-productive cogs that help to keep the big engine turning, there is a counter reality to our existence.

We are highly sensitive beings, part of, and connected to, nature in a primal and instinctive way, and our close relationship with the sun reinforces this. ‘Sunlight, with its full complement of chemical values, spaced throughout the spectrum, is intrinsically therapeutic to living tissue… and can aect people deeply on an emotional level,’ writes Roderick Fred in the introduction to the seminal book on the subject, The Healing Power of Light by Primrose Cooper.

Perhaps that’s why we will find ourselves turning our faces instinctively to the sun’s rays, especially when they first reappear after the long, dark months. Although it’s officially only plants that photosynthesise (convert light into energy), who can deny the feel-good satisfaction of letting light and heat warm our bones; the palpable sensation of our cells being re-ignited?

As humans, we must be somewhere between sunflowers and those fabulous bio-luminescent creatures whose energy is literally powered by light. I feel a great affinity with lizards who laze languidly on stones absorbing the sun’s rays or my cats who are at their happiest basking in the sunshine.

From SAD to peak sunshine

According to official figures from the Met Office, December is our darkest month with an average of 40.74 sunshine hours. In March, when the clocks spring forward by that golden hour, we are up to 101.79 hours, hitting a sunshine peak in July of 172.37 hours a month. And although we are all aware now about the dangers of both too much sun and unprotected exposure, that giant ball of hot plasma in the sky, with its 24-hour pattern of sunrise and sunlight, is the prime energy source of all life. It not only feels life-affirming, it is life-affirming: without that yellow dwarf star (it’s not a planet), there would be no life.

For some, the months of November to March are tough. Karena Callen, editor of Perfect Bound magazine, has suffered with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) since her youth and in winter, she experiences: ‘Low mood, comfort eating, constant exhaustion and the need to hibernate. It feels like a blanket has been thrown over everything or that the lights are permanently dimmed. In these long, dark months, things actually look more grey.’

Moving to the south coast and the regular use of a light-therapy lamp have helped alleviate Karen’s symptoms over the years. ‘I always work by a window if I’m writing, where I get maximum light, plus a daily dose of daylight at my local beach,’ she says. ‘Even when it’s not sunny, the reflection of the light is greater by water. Light, especially intense sunlight, gives me a palpable jolt of energy. I literally “buzz” in the summer when it’s sunny or when visiting warmer climates’.

Light, interrupted

Light feeds and nourishes us, affecting our mood and emotions. We’ve all heard of malnutrition, but there is also a condition called mal-illumination. ‘Sunlight helps us to synthesise Vitamin D, essential for absorption of calcium from food. And we need calcium for building bones and nerve function. Lack of Vitamin D has been linked to a higher risk of depression,’ Callen explains. ‘Light is involved in regulating our sleep patterns (which is why people who work at night can be prone to developing depression) and in stimulating serotonin, the mood-boosting hormone.’

Our pineal gland works like a light monitor, sending out hormonal messages to the body. This includes the hypothalamus, the area of the brain rich in the ‘happy’ hormone serotonin. According to Laura Cipullo in The Body Clock Diet, the hypothalamus is a ‘master body clock’ that controls many hormones and bio-cycles. ‘Light entering your eyes tweaks the SCN (suprachiasmatic nucleus) cells and sets your circadian rhythm in motion,’ she explains.

Our ancestors lived by the rising and setting sun – the rhythms of their lives would echo those cycles of light and darkness. But a 24-hour society and digital disturbances have disrupted this natural order and our chronobiology (cyclical physiological rhythms), which can play havoc with our mood, health and weight.

There is a great deal of science to back up the importance of light for our mental, physical and emotional health, but alongside the data, light weaves its way through our culture and language.

Key civilisation points are marked by the Dark Ages and the Enlightenment. Light means knowledge and knowing; if we can shed light on something, we know it more. When someone is in “a dark place”, we know this is not a good thing – and when we glimpse the “light at the end of the tunnel”, this is a good thing. So, let’s synchronise those watches, open the curtains and let the golden light flood in.

Bright ideas

  • Maximise your exposure to natural light by working as near to a window as you can.
  • If this isn’t possible, get out for a lunchtime walk, whatever the weather. Just wrap up.
  • At home, cut back any plants or branches that are blocking light from your internal space.
  • Create brighter surfaces indoors with white paint.
  • Replace internal walls with glass bricks wherever you can.
  • Increase the amount of light in the room by adding mirrors. These reflect everywhere.
  • Invest in a light lamp by LUMIE or the Sad Lightbox.

This article first appeared in issue 11 of Planet Mindful magazine. Join our community and make a pact to prioritise your self care – try an issue here for just 99p!