How to profoundly increase mood, health, and nighttime sleep
I didn’t pay much attention when my midwife first suggested I try to get our kids outside before noon in order to help them sleep at night. I’d never heard anything like that before, and it seemed counterintuitive.
But when March rolled around last year—and all that entailed—we were looking for simple strategies to help improve the health of our family. That search took me back down the road toward this concept of morning sunlight exposure. I’d read a little bit more about the idea since my midwife had suggested it, but we had never committed to it before. Most often, our outside time was in the afternoon— after lunch, schoolwork, and chores.
With life flipped upside down, we gave morning sunlight exposure a go. The results were immediate and remarkable. So much so that we put out a monthlong “Sunlight Before Noon” challenge for followers of my blog, 1000 Hours Outside.
Having done that, we’re recommitting to a lifestyle that includes at least 20 to 30 minutes of exposure to morning sunlight. Here are a few reasons why:
Exposure to early-morning sunlight helps you sleep at night. On the surface, that doesn’t seem to make any sense—but it’s true. The human eyeball contains one billion working parts. One billion! The man-made item closest to that level of intricacy is a space shuttle, with five hundred million working parts. One of your eyes is twice as complex as the most complex thing man has ever made.
According to Jacob Liberman, O.D., Ph.D., when sunlight enters the eyes, the entire brain lights up. Indoor light is solely for vision, but full-spectrum sunlight affects so much more. Light is a guide for the trillions of cells in our body through a process called “photobiomodulation.”
Light entering the eyes transmits time-of-day information to the brain and to the body. Sunlight sends a wakeup signal to the pituitary gland, and the pituitary gland responds by releasing hormones. Bright morning light tells your body to suppress melatonin production and increase cortisol production (which is good for you in healthy amounts) and serotonin. Eventually, the pineal gland metabolizes serotonin into melatonin…and that’s what helps you naturally fall asleep at night.
To summarize, if we expose our eyes, body, and face to morning sunlight, our body will respond by increasing serotonin. Serotonin is a precursor to melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate sleep and wake cycles. Morning sunlight provides the raw materials our body needs to make melatonin when the day starts winding down.
Exposure to early-morning sunlight enhances your mood. Serotonin is a feel-good chemical, and one way to control its release is to expose yourself to morning sunlight. Ample research suggests that serotonin plays an active role in the treatment of depression.
Exposure to full-spectrum sunlight in the morning causes our bodies to produce serotonin, which not only helps later on with nighttime sleep, but also improves mood throughout the day. Bright lights have been used for a long time as standard treatment for seasonal depression. Outdoor light, even on a cloudy day, delivers considerably more lux than indoor light. Rainy, winter days will produce lux levels of 1,000 or more, which is far greater than any inside light will produce—and on sunny, summer days, sunlight can deliver light that is one thousand times brighter than indoor light.
Exposure to early-morning sunlight enhances your health. Our bodies are light receptors. And as Jacob Liberman, Ph.D., notes in his book Light: Medicine of the Future, some of the sunlight entering our eyes is sent to the hypothalamus, which “coordinates and regulates most of our life-sustaining functions and also initiates and directs our reactions to stress.”
Humans are diurnal creatures, and our rhythms revolve around the patterns of the sun and the moon. Approximately 100 of our body’s systems are tied to the day/night cycle. Medical research fellow Ivy Cheung Mason, Ph.D., says, “Light is the most important synchronizing agent for the brain on body. Proper synchronization of internal biological rhythms with the earth’s daily rotation has been shown to be essential for health.”
Exposure to early-morning sunlight can help with weight loss. A 2014 study conducted at Northwestern University indicated that people with earlier light exposure tend to weigh less… and results can be seen in just three short weeks! “Even after controlling for all non-light exposure factors including food intake, sleep, activity, the influence of morning light on weight was considerable—it accounted for roughly 20% of the subject’s BMI, meaning those with earlier light exposure weighed less.”
For our family, we clearly noticed the effects of outdoor play and sunlight exposure long before we began reading the accompanying research. At this point, however, knowing some of the research helps us stay motivated— especially on dreary winter days when we’d rather stay inside. Knowing these benefits, and assuming there are probably even more that we don’t know, pushes us outdoors… and we always notice improvements in health, mood, and sleep.
Prioritizing morning sunlight does radical things for our health and our moods, and can be especially beneficial during the busiest times of the year.