For many, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)—a form of depression that follows a seasonal pattern—can make the winter months unbearable. It’s commonly believed that SAD is caused by lack of daylight, and increased melatonin production. Getting more light in your life can help to beat the winter blues.
The benefits of natural light
It’s generally known that vitamin D production is dependent on sunshine. This vital nutrient for regulating the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body keeps the bones, teeth and muscles healthy, preventing bone deformities, bone pain, weight gain, heart disease and cancer.
Productivity and focus
According to multiple studies, there is a strong link between natural light exposure and overall productivity. In a research poll by Future Workplace, access to natural light and views of the outdoors was rated the number one attribute for the workplace environment.
Linked to improved focus, efficiency and memory retention, daylight exposure can also improve sleep quality—a factor that largely impacts productivity.
The body uses circadian rhythms to coordinate all of its functions over a 24-hour period. These rhythms reset on a daily basis, and are ideally in sync with the rise and fall of the sun. For example, when the sun sets, our body understands that it is time to sleep.
Phone screens and fluorescent lighting can disrupt this pattern, and the dark winter months can cause excess melatonin production and disrupted sleep.
According to research, spending three hours a day outside can lower the risk of children and young adults developing myopia (nearsightedness). Dopamine—the chemical that controls the growth and development of the eyeball—is stimulated by natural light.
Natural light also lowers the risk of cataracts and other eye conditions in elderly people. In contrast, artificial light can have a harmful effect on vision, leading to eyestrain and serious eye issues.
A 2014 study found that people who had windows in their office exercised more, got more sleep, and had a greater sense of wellbeing. When the body recognises sunlight through the optic nerve, the brain slows the production of melatonin and increases serotonin levels—the ‘happy hormone’.
Artificial lighting can cause stress, migraines, eyestrain, metabolic disorders, and mood disorders, and disrupt the body clock and hormonal system. Spending time in natural light reduces exposure to fluorescent lighting.
So far, we seem to have discovered that natural light is good, and artificial light is not so good. This is definitely a problem when we’re waking up in the dark, and leaving work in the dark, too.
Luckily, SAD can be treated by light therapy. A daylight balanced lamp that mimics the frequencies of sunlight, or a light box which imitates the rising and setting of the sun, can help; Mitsubishi has developed a giant ceiling-mounted LED panel which can be set to imitate the effect of a skylight, mimicking the natural light states of sunrise, mid-day and sunset.
Taking your lunch break outside, walking to work, and exercising outside can also help to boost your daylight exposure, and in turn, your mood. If you’re not willing to brave the winter weather, simply eating breakfast near a window can be beneficial.
During the autumn and winter seasons, when it’s not possible to get enough vitamin D from sunlight alone, the NHS recommends dietary supplements and food sources such as oily fish, red meat, liver, egg yolks and fortified foods.
At home, soft, yellow lighting and dimmer switches can reduce disruption to circadian rhythms. Reducing exposure to blue light (from sources such as such as TVs, tablets and phone) before bed can also help by regulating melatonin production.
How to maximise natural light
Having mirrors in the home can help to reflect sunlight and cast brightness over an area. Place mirrors opposite windows, in the path of the sun’s rays, and try furnishing with metallic materials, such as on-trend copper décor.
East-facing windows will provide natural light in the morning, south-facing windows in the afternoon, and west-facing windows in the evening. Dust-free, light coloured window frames reflect the light best. Carefully positioning any large furniture or garden objects away from windows can prevent them from blocking the sun.
Unlike dark colours that absorb natural light, light colours—such as white—are reflective and will serve to disperse light around a room. If your floors are on the darker side, purchasing a light-colored rug can help, too.