Brain Food: The Weather and Your Mood

Spring has been a bit on the slow side here in New England and people are getting grumpy. This week, we take a look at the connection between the weather and your mood. It turns out that the weather and your mood are entwined in ways we had not imagined.

It was not that many years ago that SAD, seasonal affective disorder, was generally disbelieved. Some thought it was an invention of the pharmaceutical industry to boost use of anti-depressants. Others thought it was an idea endorsed by psychologists and psychiatrists to increase our time on their couches. But it is real. We might even be experiencing a small degree of its effects in this so-far cloudy month of May.

It turns out, we need sunlight as much as our gardens do. The body’s reaction to sunlight is related to melatonin and serotonin. When we are deprived of sunshine, our bodies produce more melatonin, the hormone that controls our sleep patterns and causes drowsiness. Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland. It signals the supra-chiastic nucleus (https://patient.info/doctor/seasonal-affective-disorder-pro), the master biological clock that resides in the hypothalamus, responsible for activities of the autonomic nervous system.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter found in the brain, the digestive tract, and the blood. It transmits impulses between nerve cells and regulates cyclic body processes. Exposure to sunshine (Vitamin D) increases the brain’s release of serotonin.

Sunshine is the key to a good balance of melatonin and serotonin. Too much melatonin causes sleepiness, too little serotonin can lead to depression. Until the day when we can control the weather (some might argue that we already can, but that is a different blog post entirely), we need to learn to reduce its impact on our emotional well-being. Here are a few ways to start to make your own kind of sunshine:

Turn on the lights.
Some research suggests that even artificial light can boost serotonin levels.

Get outside.
Even on cloudy days, you’ll get some sun exposure when outdoors. And scientific studies show that walking in nature can improve your mood.

Exercise.
Exercise naturally stimulates serotonin (and dopamine). Even gentle exercise can boost your mood.

Meditate.
University of Montreal scientists have demonstrated that meditation replenishes the brain’s  serotonin levels. It limits the activity of the stress-producing regions of the brain (the amygdala and the right prefrontal cortex) while increasing that of the calm-producing part of the brain (the left prefrontal cortex). It also boosts endorphins, growth hormones, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (the neurotransmitter that helps the brain stave off addiction and anxiety). Meditation also supports healthy sleep patterns.

Next week, we’ll look at some simple meditation techniques to help you replenish your brain and feel calm no matter what the weather is doing.