Boost Your Mind + Mood with Sunshine

by Sun City

RESEARCH has shown a definite link between higher vitamin
D levels and improved cognitive health and mental-emotional
wellbeing. For this reason, it makes sense that higher
amounts of UVB from sunshine exposure, which generates
vitamin D in the body, would also be related to improved
mood and cognition.
However, there are so many ways through which exposure to
sunlight can boost our mood and benefit our mind, besides
those related to increased vitamin D levels!
In addition to producing vitamin D, sunlight or UVB exposure
results in the release of beta-endorphins, which are naturally
occurring opioids that promote mood enhancement,
relaxation, and pain relief. Nitric oxide, which is produced
upon exposure to UVA from sunlight, has been shown
to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, resulting in
decreased anxiety and depression. The release of melatonin
and serotonin is also prompted with sun exposure, both of
which are associated with sleep regulation, improved mood,
and easing anxiety.
Dopamine is another chemical in the body that is released
upon exposure to sunshine. Dopamine, AKA the “feel-good
neurotransmitter,” is known to boost mood and motivation,
and is also linked to reduced depression and anxiety. A study
evaluating the correlation between dopamine and sunshine,
by Tsai et al., found that dopamine receptor availability was
significantly greater among participants with the highest
amount of sunshine exposure compared to the lowest,
indicating a sensitivity of the dopamine system to variations in
the amount of sun exposure a person gets.
Recent research has identified an “endogenous opioid-
mediated addiction-like pathway,” or a built-in feedback loop
between vitamin D levels and sun seeking behavior, triggered
by the UV-induced release of beta-endorphins. When the
skin is exposed to UVB, beta-endorphins (the endogenous
opioids made in the body) and vitamin D are produced
simultaneously. The suggested benefit is to provide a “reward”
for UV-induced vitamin D synthesis when vitamin D levels are
low, during which time a greater amount of beta-endorphins
are released upon exposure to UVB. As vitamin D levels
rise, the sun-seeking behavior and resulting opioid response
become repressed as less vitamin D is needed, representing a
dose-dependent relationship between sun-seeking behavior,
opioid response, and vitamin D levels.
There are even studies showing how vitamin D deficiency can
be a contributing factor to opioid addiction, such as a study by
Kemeny et al., which reviews how the intake of opioid drugs
bypasses vitamin D production and the proposed feedback-
control loop that is managed by vitamin D levels – which
is hypothesized to contribute to continued opioid seeking
behavior and resulting addiction. Using mouse models to help
explain their hypothesis, the authors found that
• vitamin D deficiency increased UV radiation-induced
endogenous pain relief and reward
• vitamin D deficiency did increase the UV/opioid reward,
likely to maximize vitamin D synthesis, which normalized
with the correction of vitamin D levels, and more
Lower Risk of Generalized Anxiety Disorder – Limited or
minimized sunshine exposure has also been associated with
and increased risk of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Better Mood and Improved Sense of Wellbeing – Studies
have correlated increased levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6) with
major depressive disorder, and cortisol with immune and
mood imbalances.
Improved Infant Motor Development and Postpartum
Depression – A study by Zhang et al. found that infants
receiving vitamin D (400 IU/day) plus sunlight had better
motor development scores and lower cortisol levels over the
next two months compared to infants only taking vitamin D
supplements (400 or 1000 IU/day) or the control group.
Seasonal Affective Disorder – One in ten Americans suffer
from a recurring depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder
(SAD) for which their symptoms often start in late fall or early
winter when the days are short, and go away in the spring
when the days lengthen. In other words, they feel better
when there is more UVB available with sunlight. The risk is
much higher for people who live further from the equator,
where the length of the days varies more greatly throughout
the year. Light therapy, exposure to artificial UVB lamps, has
been shown to be an effective treatment for people with SAD,
improving symptoms by 50-80%.
Reduced Risk of Cognitive Impairment – A study by Gao et
al. looked at data from 1192 participants aged 60 years and
older and residing in rural China who provided information
about their long-term sun exposure behaviors including time
of day when outdoors, duration outdoors, and use of sun
protection. This study concluded that long-term high sun
exposure throughout life could reduce the risk of cognitive
impairment in the later years of life.


GrassrootsHealth is a nonprofit public health research organization dedicated to moving public health
messages regarding vitamin D from research into practice. It has a panel of 48 senior vitamin D
researchers from around the world contributing to its operations