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While it’s true that the skin produces endorphins, notably beta-endorphins, in response to broad spectrum (natural) light, the feel-good sensation that accompanies being in the sun is likely a psychological response. Think about it: Most people associate sun-bathing with vacations, time away from school or work, tropical islands, honeymoons . . . a relaxed state of mind. In fact, when tanaholics are asked why they seek out the sun, many say, “to relax.” In animals, stress boosts the desire for addictive drugs; in humans, it inhibits the part of the brain that normally puts the brakes on risky behavior. Looking at it from an evolutionary perspective also helps make sense of this; for millennia we roamed about the land and spent a great deal more time outside than inside.
Today, most people live more confined lives, staying and working indoors for much of the day. Some of us rarely see the sun anymore thanks to long working hours that have us commuting before dawn and home after dark. What happens is that your psychological reaction to being in the great outdoors and sun triggers your body to release feel-good hormones from the inside. Meanwhile, the endorphins created locally in your skin act as anti-inflammatories. They also may help boost your natural collagen and protect against wrinkles, acne, and UV-derived sun damage.
The research aiming to understand the addiction factor of tanning and seeking the warmth of the sun is still in its infancy, but one cannot deny the feel-good sensations that accompany many people’s reaction to sunlight. Numerous studies have demonstrated how sunlight can lessen the symptoms of seasonal affected disorder and depression. Much of sunlight’s effect on mood is related to the visible light that hits your eyes. Remember, cycles of light and dark affect the production of certain hormones like melatonin, which in turn says a lot about our biological rhythms and moods.
From The Mind-Beauty Connection: 9 Days to Less Stress, Gorgeous Skin, and a Whole New You by Amy Wechsler.
Sunlight triggers our circadian rhythms, our sleep-wake cycles. When sunlight hits the optic nerve, the brain cuts down on the release of melatonin, a hormone that controls sleep, and increases production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter tied to wakefulness and feeling happy. When the sun sets, this cycle is reversed, with more melatonin produced and less serotonin. The more sunlight the body receives, the more serotonin the brain produces. In addition, the body also creates vitamin D from the sun's ultraviolet rays. High levels of vitamin D help our bodies maintain high levels of serotonin.