Weather is a powerful force of nature that humans have spent thousands of years trying to understand through passive observations, eventually leading to the development of modern weather technology. Understanding weather patterns is critical for obvious reasons, including food production, catastrophic storms, and climate changes. This omnipresent force may also influence something less obvious: your mood. When it is sunny and mild, more people tend to go outdoors to play, exercise, and soak up sunlight than they do in the winter months, when many are cooped up trying to stay warm. Those warmer conditions tend to be associated with elevated mood. Why?
The Circadian Rhythm
The daily transition from day to night is more important to your everyday functioning than you might think. Our body has a biological mechanism called a circadian rhythm, which involves physical, mental, and behavioral changes in a 24-hour cycle. Animals, plants, and even microscopic creatures experience this rhythm. On a basic level, the circadian rhythm determines when an organism should be active and when it should be inactive.
This pattern is influenced by exposure to different levels of light throughout the day, which triggers the activation of certain genes involved in wakefulness, alertness, and sleepiness. Animals like us are called diurnal: we’re typically awake and active during the day. Unfortunately, if you have a teenager, they might be running on a completely different biological schedule than you!
Understanding a circadian rhythm is important as it helps regulate critical bodily functions like eating habitats, digestion, body temperature, and hormones like melatonin. Melatonin—as you may already know—is involved in sleep patterns. It senses when there is less light via signals from the nerves in the eyes, sending that information to the brain. The brain responds by making more melatonin, which then makes you sleepy. Disruptions to this daily pattern of activity and inactivity can be harmful, potentially causing sleep disorders and leading to further complications like obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder, and, notably, seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
The Main Players: Serotonin & Light
Serotonin is a well-studied neurotransmitter involved in many biological processes, such as cardiovascular function, bowel motility, and bladder control. It is a key player in neural activity and is the focus of some antidepressants called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), which act to maintain increased levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is known as the “feel-good” hormone, and studies have shown that low serotonin levels in the brain are associated with poor memory and depressed mood. However, too much serotonin can be fatal.
Researchers have discovered a connection between light exposure and serotonin levels indicating light can affect mood: “[light] directly modulat[es] the availability of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which is involved in mood regulation, and by entraining and stabilizing circadian rhythms.” Other researchers hypothesize that sunshine could stimulate the production of serotonin via the skin, which is in line with what others have demonstrated regarding serotonin levels in the brain during winter and spring. These researchers found that “the rate of production of serotonin by the brain was directly related to the prevailing duration of bright sunlight, and rose rapidly with increased [brightness].” As a result of these discoveries, light therapy has developed as a treatment for mood and other psychiatric disorders.
Mild & Green
Other weather conditions like mild temperatures and the presence of green vegetation can have positive effects on mood. In places with seasons, these conditions are ideal during spring. Mild weather is just comfortable, as our bodies don’t have to work to keep warm or cool off. Harsher conditions can make a person irritated, aggressive, and ready to get inside a controlled climate!
As for green space, studies show that childhood exposure to parks, forests, and rural lands reduces the risk for developing psychiatric disorders during adolescence and adulthood. The same study looked at how citizens of Denmark, who grew up with very little green space, faired psychologically. Shockingly, the study found that those citizens had as much as a 55% increased risk of developing depression, anxiety, and substance abuse as adults.
Many people are still working to understand why green space is so good for our minds and bodies, but there are some hypotheses: it encourages exercise and socializing, has reduced pollution, and may improve immunity to beneficial microbes through exposure. Green space can be an aid to psychological restoration, calming an over-stimulated and stressed-out mind.
Good weather tends to be associated with more time spent outside. Adults and children alike flock to parks and trails, and some people plan big events, like outdoor weddings. Sunny and mild weather makes us feel good by increasing our levels of serotonin and exposing us to psychologically calming green space. Experiencing different levels of sunlight throughout the day is also central to the functioning of our circadian rhythm, which keeps us healthy by regulating many biological functions. When that rhythm is disrupted and we are no longer exposed to external regulating and therapeutic factors, mental health can become compromised. This is common for some during the onset of winter, where outdoor hours are usually limited. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression triggered by the shorter days of fall and winter months. It can severely impair your ability to function socially and conduct normal, daily activities. Some people feel hopeless and oversleep, while others may crave carbs or nothing at all. If you think you might be suffering from SAD or any type of depression, Oceanfront Recovery is a great place to start your recovery process. We offer an affordable Depression Treatment Program in Laguna Beach, California, led by our experienced clinical staff. Call us for more details at (877) 279-1777.