Sun Exposure Reduces Depression - Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC

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Sun Exposure Reduces Depression

And safe sun exposure for winter.

Key Takeaways

  • Safe sun exposure was shown in a study to increase vitamin D blood levels and reduce depression symptoms in vitamin D deficient participants, compared to controls.
  • Sun lamp therapy and safe tanning bed use may be a helpful supplement during winter months.
  • Improving your gut health may also improve depression and anxiety symptoms.

Can sun exposure improve your mood? It’s probably not a shocking finding that a recent pilot study found that sun exposure can reduce depression.The results suggest it’s important to find time to be in the sun on a weekly basis.

In This Episode…

Sun Exposure, Vitamin D & Depression Study … 00:00:46
Safe Sun Exposure … 00:01:49
Study Results … 00:03:30
What if You Can’t Get in the Sun? … 00:04:08
Sun Lamp Therapy … 00:04:28
Tanning Beds & Vitamin D … 00:05:00
Depression & the Gut-Brain Connection … 00:06:13

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Sun Exposure, Vitamin D, and Depression Study

In a study entitled Sun Exposure and Behavioral Activation for Hypovitaminosis D and Depression: A Controlled Pilot Study, “Those participants who were severely vitamin D deficient and experiencing clinically significant depression were randomly allocated to either 12 weeks of behavioral activation emphasizing safe sun exposure, a group of 10, or a waiting list control group, another group of 10.” [1]

Safe Sun Exposure

A key point here is “safe sun exposure”. As a guideline, approximately 10 to 20 minutes of daily sun exposure is a good source of vitamin D. If you have darker skin, you may need 30 minutes or more.

You can adjust the amount of sun so that you see some benefit—perhaps a slight pigment change of your skin—but never allow your skin to get anywhere near burning. Once you have completed your daily sun exposure, you should wear sunscreen or cover your skin to prevent sun damage.

To quote the study results, “The sun group showed a significant increase in vitamin D [blood levels]. There was no change in vitamin D in the control. Similarly, the sun group saw positive results for their depressive symptoms.” The researchers concluded, “Sun exposure and behavioral activation”—essentially changing your lifestyle to get some time in the sun—”may be an effective approach for improving vitamin D deficiency status and alleviating depressive symptoms.” [1] This is great news.

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Sun Exposure During Winter and Seasonal Affective Disorder

What if you live in a climate with winters, and you experience seasonal depression in the winter, or can’t get daily sun exposure? This is known as seasonal affective disorder, or the winter blues. Lack of winter sunlight can be a risk factor for symptoms of SAD, such as depressive symptoms and circadian rhythm disruptions.

Sun Lamp Therapy

Sun lamps or light boxes have been shown to be an effective treatment for SAD (seasonal affective disorder). These are known as white lights or blue lights, and you can use them at home or at your office. A general guideline is to use the lamp for 10 to 15 minutes, once per day. Exposure to this sunlight-like light has been shown to improve mood and symptoms of depression. Here are two examples of sun lamps:

What About Tanning Beds for Vitamin D?

Tanning beds are definitely a contentious topic, and understandably so. We should be cautious with this recommendation, but according to at least one study, less than 12 tanning bed sessions per year  seems to correlate with health benefits. However, over 12 sessions per year seems to correlate with reduced health outcomes. [2]

So, there may be a sweet spot if you are trying to obtain sun exposure with tanning beds during the winter months. Making sure that you don’t exceed 12 sessions over that winter stretch might be a way to do so safely

The most intelligent starting point would probably be to try a sun lamp to improve your mood first. If that doesn’t work, you could consider escalating to a tanning bed, with caution. Do check with your doctor before using tanning beds.

Depression & the Gut-Brain Connection

Just because some research shows that sun exposure can improve mood doesn’t mean you have to try to force a sun solution. It’s important to remember that if you’re experiencing depression or depressive symptoms, this may indicate you have a gut imbalance.

For example, there is good evidence showing that using probiotics can improve depression and anxiety. Consider:

  • In a meta-analysis of 10 clinical trials with a total of 1,349 subjects, probiotics were associated with significant improvements in the moods of individuals with mild to moderate depressive symptoms. [3] This effect was not seen in healthy individuals.
  • Another systematic review with meta-analysis of clinical trials has found probiotics lead to a significant reduction in depression. [4]
  • There is also data showing anxiety can be improved from probiotics.  The data here are not as strong, but still have documented an anti-anxiety effect, in human clinical trials. [5]

Given this evidence, another option may be taking some steps to improve the health of your gut.

The Bottom Line

Daily safe sun exposure may help increase vitamin D levels, and improve symptoms of depression. Aim for 10-15 minutes of safe sun exposure. When you can’t access sun exposure, sun lamp therapy and safe tanning bed use may be a helpful alternative.

References (click to expand)
  1. Thomas J, Al-Anouti F. Sun Exposure and Behavioral Activation for Hypovitaminosis D and Depression: A Controlled Pilot Study. Community Ment Health J. 2018;54(6):860-865. doi:10.1007/s10597-017-0209-5
  2. Reichrath J, Lindqvist PG, DE Gruijl FR, et al. A Critical Appraisal of the Recent Reports on Sunbeds from the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks and from the World Health Organization. Anticancer Res. 2018;38(2):1111-1120. doi:10.21873/anticanres.12330
  3. Ng QX, Peters C, Ho CYX, Lim DY, Yeo WS. A meta-analysis of the use of probiotics to alleviate depressive symptoms. J Affect Disord. 2018;228:13-19. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2017.11.063
  4. Huang R, Wang K, Hu J. Effect of Probiotics on Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Nutrients. 2016;8(8):483. Published 2016 Aug 6. doi:10.3390/nu8080483
  5. Yang BWei JJu P, et al
    Effects of regulating intestinal microbiota on anxiety symptoms: A systematic review

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