Is there anything more tempting on a warm September day than to head outside under a crystalline sky and brilliant sun? For some people who used to be sun worshippers, that might feel a little bittersweet.
New York City dermatologist and psychiatrist Amy Wechsler, MD (who used to “lay out” as a teen before she wised up), is an expert on this topic. “Many of us connect that warm feeling from the sun with being a kid,” she says. “It harks back to a time of freedom — swimming and playing outside, feeling carefree and without responsibilities.”
We know now, of course, that exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation (the sun’s rays that aren’t visible to our human eyes) can lead to premature skin aging and skin cancer. So if you rigorously protect yourself from the sun, you might think you can’t evoke those blissed-out feelings anymore. But you can, says Dr. Wechsler.
The key is the visible part of the light spectrum. It turns out, the light and color we can see, which enters our bodies through our eyes, doesn’t cause skin cancer but does play a huge role in how we feel.
If you step outside after waking up in the morning, for example, your eyes take in the bright light. The optic nerve communicates with your brain, which affects hormones like melatonin, which helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle, and chemicals like serotonin, which helps balance your mood. That light helps your brain adjust so you can feel energized and happy. Wearing sunscreen, or a hat and long-sleeved shirt, doesn’t interfere with those operations, Dr. Wechsler explains.
“So getting outside is what it’s all about,” she says. “You can be in the shade, under an umbrella, or go for walks in nature, among plants and trees. That’s vitamin G for green!”
Looking at bright light is a good way to improve your mood. But also doing things that help your brain release feel-good chemicals like endorphins, such as vigorous exercise, getting a massage, connecting with friends and loved ones, even petting a dog, can also lift your spirits, on a September day or any day.