Do you love the great outdoors? If you’re like us, you feel better after being outside for long periods of time. As it turns out, Mother Nature is the original (free!) antidepressant. Find out how to improve your body and mind by spending more time outdoors and making a few lifestyle changes. These free resources have been available to us forever, but science is now explaining how fresh air and sunshine boost serotonin levels naturally.
Electronics + Pollution = Positive Ions
Throughout the day, we’re exposed to excessive positive ions produced from cell phones, computers, TVs, air conditioners, and clothes dryers. Thanks to pollution in modern cities, positive ions stick around longer. Positive ions have been shown to make breathing more difficult and contribute to feelings of irritability, tension, lethargy and unpleasantness.
Fresh Air + Water = Negative Ions
Negative ions form in areas where water interfaces with oxygen. Higher concentrations of negative ions are found near oceans, lakes, rivers, at the base of waterfalls, in the air during a thunderstorm….even in the shower. When you breathe in air that’s charged full of negative ions, stress levels are reduced. A positive, alert and energized mood is created, and the levels of serotonin increase. This helps reduce feelings of depression and lethargy. High concentrations of negative ions in the air have an antidepressant effect in as little as 30 minutes.
- Turn off the air conditioning at night in the summer, use box fans or a whole house fan instead
- Escape pollution – go to the mountains; spend time by a river, lake, stream, or at the base of a waterfall; go to the ocean
- Open windows or go outside during a rain storm
- Can’t get away? Take a shower, run through the sprinkler, sit by a mister
- Reduce exposure to electronics
- Reduce the pollution you contribute (walk, bus, bike, ride-share)
- Use the clothes dryer less – line dry laundry on sunny warm days
It’s important to avoid too much sun exposure due to harmful UV rays, but there’s a balance. Sunshine triggers some amazing biological processes that benefit health.
When sunlight hits the eyes, it triggers photoreceptors (the rods) in the retina that regulate serotonin levels. Higher serotonin levels make you feel alert, energized, and happy. When exposed to darkness, those same photoreceptors regulate a hormone preparing us for sleep called melatonin. Without enough sunlight, serotonin levels can dip causing mood changes, depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
You don’t need to stare at the sun for your eyes to absorb its light. Sitting close to a window or within a few feet of bright sunlight will trigger serotonin-producing reactions. There are rods at the periphery of the retina so it isn’t necessary to have the light source directly in front of you.
- Spend at least 20 minutes in sunshine, morning is best, don’t use sunglasses during this time
- Sitting by a sunny window counts (i.e. commuting, sitting by an office window)
- Before you intend to sleep start avoiding bright light (ideally 1-2 hours)
- Sit beside a light box in winter when days are short, or days you can’t be outside
The sun’s UVB rays penetrate your skin and trigger the release of a skin cholesterol that your body uses to produce vitamin D. Vitamin D is necessary for serotonin production. Adequate serotonin and vitamin D levels play a part in your DNA health. Low levels put you at higher risk of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and diabetes. Vitamin D also plays a big role in bone health. Low vitamin D levels can causes rickets and decreased bone density associated with osteoporosis. Unfortunately, you can’t get the amount of vitamin D your body needs just from food.
- Spend around HALF the time it takes for you to get a sunburn in the sun without sunscreen or clothing covering you – try to expose as much skin as possible (typically 5-15 minutes)
- Learn how much time YOU need to spend in the sun for optimal vitamin D production.
- Consider: time of day, where you live, the color of your skin, and how much skin is exposed.
- UVB rays are USUALLY present between 10 AM and 2 PM from April to October (in Boise, ID)
- Supplement with vitamin D on days you don’t get sun exposure and during times of the year when UVB rays aren’t around (November to March in Boise, ID)
- See Resources below for more details and supplementation guidelines
In an ideal world, everyone would drink coffee or eat breakfast for 20 minutes in the morning sunlight. At lunch, you would take a 5-15 minute break to soak up vitamin D. Finally, you’d wash away the positive ions you were exposed to all day by running through a sprinkler, floating a river, swimming, sitting next to a mister or taking a nice long shower. Unfortunately not every day of your life can be like this, do the best you can.
We would be irresponsible if we didn’t remind you that exposing your skin and eyes to the sun can have damaging effects: skin cancer, cataracts, and more. If you plan to be in the sun longer than 15 minutes, apply sunscreen and re-apply as directed. Don’t forget to wear sunglasses after you’ve gotten your 20 minutes of bright sunlight in the morning.
Please don’t use this information to replace existing treatments for depression. However, we believe it’s important to also be aware of natural, free and widely available ways to boost your serotonin levels. Since we spend more time inside and around machines as a culture, perhaps the quaintness of fresh air and sunshine are just what we need.
Please share this post if you’ve learned anything new. See you in the great outdoors!