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A Natural Boost: Sunlight and the Brain
By Christy Bailey
If your mood seems to lift in the longer, brighter days of summer, you’re not alone. Research shows that exposure to daylight can increase mood, alertness and even thinking abilities.
One reason for the mood boost is serotonin, a natural antidepressant manufactured by the brain. In a Baker Heart Research Institute (Melbourne, Australia) study, Gavin Lambert and his colleagues found that the brain produces more serotonin on sunny days than on overcast or cloudy days. In study participants, the rate of serotonin production in the brain was highest in the spring and summer, the seasons with the longest daily periods of sunlight, and directly related to the duration of bright sunlight. The findings were published in the December 7, 2002 issue of The Lancet.
Later research showed that light exposure actually enhances brain response. In 2006, researchers in Belgium and England exposed study participants to light and then performed tests on their thinking abilities. They used brain imaging to see exactly what areas of the brain responded to the light exposure. Results showed that even a brief exposure to light substantially increased alertness and thinking ability in participants. Alertness was shown to be related to altered activity in the thalamus, a structure buried deep in the brain. Attention to sound was also tested; for example, participants were asked to identify different tones. During this part of the test, brain imaging showed that the light enhanced areas of the brain known to be involved in paying attention. The findings suggest that even small doses of light during the day can do much to regulate some brain function.
Sunlight may have other benefits as well, including protection from some diseases; exposure to sun stimulates the body to produce vitamin D, which has been shown to provide protection against diseases such as cancer.
Of all the studies performed to date, no specific research has been done on the effect of sunlight on brain activity in stroke survivors. However, we all know that stroke rehabilitation requires energy, attention, focus and hope areas that may be enhanced through the increase in sun exposure that occurs during the summer months. So this summer, get outdoors and soak in a little sun. Take a long walk. Sit in a park. Play with the grandchildren in the backyard. And perhaps you will experience a mood boost that will help you move forward in your stroke recovery journey.*
*Of course, be sure to limit your direct sun exposure by using sunscreen, wearing hats to protect your face, and staying indoors during the midday hours, when the sun is at its peak.
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