Over the last few weeks, we’ve been hearing a similar story over and over again. It seems a huge number of people are feeling the burden of the dark, drizzly days as of late. If you’ve been feeling increasingly fatigued, sleepier than usual, perhaps even along with a bit of muscle weakness, you’re not the only one. We tend to associate this winter slump and the seemingly endless sniffles and illnesses we acquire at this time of year with the cold, but it’s not lack of warmth which causes this; it’s lack of light.
With less UV rays getting through as the sun stays low in the sky through winter, along with our tendency to be indoors through most if not all daylight hours, problems caused by lack of sunlight affect most of us.
You may have heard of the importance of vitamin D, deficiencies in which are known to cause lethargy, depression and a weakening the immune system. This can be supplemented, although dietary intake is not as efficient a source as sunlight. Oily fish is one of the few natural dietary sources – one of numerous reasons we should try to have plenty in our diet. However, the best way to get your vitamin D topped up is getting sunlight on your skin as frequently as possible.
However, vitamin D is not the only reason sunlight is important. As with many factors of health studies, when we analyse and reduce to its simplest form we often miss other important or more subtle aspects.
Another which has recently been uncovered is the importance of sunlight for the production of nitric oxide. This molecule is produced within the cardiovascular system and is essential for regulation of blood vessel dilation and therefor keeping blood pressure down. This has been known for some time, but it’s only recently been discovered that nitric oxide is also stored in the skin, and released when the skin is exposed to UV light. It’s thought that this could be why there is a higher risk of heart disease in populations with lower sunlight exposure even when other risk factors and vitamin D are accounted for.
Alongside this, we need to consider the important role of light for sleep regulation. Melatonin is a hormone released in the evening and all through the night which makes us drowsy and able to sleep, and it is directly inhibited by bright light such as sunlight. Each morning, sunlight stimulates a nerve pathway from the retina to bring down melatonin production to nearly nothing during the day. In winter when the sun is weak, or you go straight to the office and barely even see it, this effect is lessened and melatonin production is slower to cease. This can lead not only to drowsiness during the day, but also difficulty sleeping at night since it throws the whole circadian rhythm off.
So all in all, it’s no surprise if the British February is getting you down. Tired, probably getting every illness going, feeling weak and lacking motivation, maybe even trouble sleeping and waking up in the morning – this seems to be most of us at the moment. But what can we do about it?
I never thought I’d be advocating sunbed use to anyone, but I think that’s what I’m about to do. Using a sunbed for a few minutes every now and again has similar effects to sunlight. Of course you don’t want to overdo it – most of these positive effects can be achieved in just a few minutes, before any tanning occurs. You may feel the benefits of just 4 or 5 minutes, a couple of times a month to top up vitamin and nitric oxide.
A daylight alarm can help to get you going in the morning and normalise your body clock, or an SAD (the aptly named seasonal affective disorder) lamp which is generally brighter and can be used in the morning or daytime.
Of course, ideally try to get outside as much as possible, especially around midday and when the sun is shining. Although in the summer we need to be careful with the amount of exposure we get, in winter it’s far easier to underdo it than overdo it.