The long winter nights coupled with shorter days can have negative effects on mood and mental health. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or winter depression, is not a condition that is isolated to those living in the far north, but rather, can impact anyone living in areas where light exposure is limited during the winter months. Even though your mood throughout the winter may not be classified as clinical, it is probably likely that it is affected by the lack of light exposure, time spent outdoors, and colder temperatures.
Using a sauna during the winter months may be a perfect antidote to the mid-winter blues. This is particularly true if you are able to use a sauna (either traditional or infrared) that also comes with color light therapy.
During the colder months of the year, a sauna can help replace some of the outdoor exercise that you may be missing out on, warm the body up, and expose the eyes to the full color light spectrum with chromotherapy.
Saunas, particularly infrared saunas, can be excellent for anyone living with SAD, but also for anyone who needs an extra boost to their mood during the winter months. Nothing can replace exposure to natural light, however, it is possible to find alternatives and activities that may enhance your mood and overall well-being during the darker months of the year.
Why is Light From the Sun Important for Mood?
Sunlight affects human physiology in a multitude of ways, and it is necessary in order for the body to function properly. Moreover, exposure to sunlight directly affects mood. Where there is a lack of sunlight there is also, in general, a lack of mood stability or the ability to experience joy. Given that life on earth oscillates diurnally between day and night, it is clear that humans need both sunlight as well as periods of darkness for rest and sleep. So what happens to individuals who live further away from the equator and experience a substantial lack of exposure to sunlight during the winter months?
For some highly sensitive individuals, lack of sufficient sun exposure during the winter months can cause what is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). For many others, the darker days impact mood in a negative way.
Exposure to enough sunlight helps to establish a healthy circadian rhythm, or sleep/ wake cycle. (1) Getting enough quality sleep can determine not only the mood of an individual, but also overall health.
Sunlight helps to modulate the availability of neurotransmitters like serotonin. If serotonin uptake is not regulated through exposure to sunlight, then the body will not be able to produce enough melatonin in order for sound sleep to occur. Serotonin is a precursor to melatonin, so, if during the long nights of winter individuals are not able to get outside and receive the wavelengths of light from the sun, there will be a lack of serotonin, and consequently, melatonin. (1)
Sunlight contains many variations of light wavelengths which can prove to be very difficult to mimic in artificial ways. If you do live further away from the equator and accessing sufficient light during the winter months of the year is an issue, then it is of paramount importance for your health to find alternative methods to stabilize mood, circadian rhythms, and overall health.
For individuals living with the diagnosis of SAD, it is important to work with a medical professional directly, as this is a serious condition. For those simply living with the winter blues, then you may want to consider using a sauna regularly, perhaps even daily, to help mitigate the loss of direct sunlight exposure during the winter months.
How Can Saunas Help Improve Mood During the Winter Months?
- Dopamine & Norepinephrine Production
- Enhanced Immunity
- Cardiovascular Engagement
- Improved Sleep
Rather than providing a substitute for exposure to natural sunlight during the winter months, saunas can provide an alternative tool to boost mood and help regulate the sleep wake cycle. Nothing can ever replace the sun, but there are a few things we can do to help mitigate a lack of sun exposure – one of these alternatives is the regular use of saunas.
While lengthening the amount of sunlight in the day may not be possible, getting into the sauna 3-7 times per week may very likely improve your overall mood. The mechanism enlisted from the body during heat exposure releases a cocktail of ‘feel good’ hormones that will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy during the coldest months of the year. Plus, the benefits to physical health are almost immeasurable.
Dopamine & Norepinephrine Production
The use of a sauna – either a traditional steam sauna or an infrared sauna – creates heat stress on the body. In reaction to this external signal of heat, the adrenal glands produce dopamine, which is a precursor to norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is both a neurotransmitter as well as a hormone. (3) Invoking norepinephrine during a sauna has a direct relationship to the body’s ability to let in more light photons. (3)
This means that if you are able to start your day, even with a short sauna, and therefore isolated heated stress, you will be activating the release of norepinephrine, which is a part of the autonomic nervous system. This activation of the autonomic nervous system allows the eyes to dilate in response to the environment in order to let in more light. So, if you are in a light deficit during the winter months, you may want to consider going outside immediately after your sauna while you are still experiencing a dopamine high from the heat stress, this will allow your eyes to absorb significantly more light into the body. (3)
If you are already experiencing the mid-winter blues, getting sick with the common cold will certainly be a downer. It is possible to improve adaptive immunity through regular sauna use and protect yourself against a winter cold or flu. Individuals living in good health are less likely to feel depressed. Though, it is not possible to magically make the sun shine for longer periods of time during the winter, it may be possible to boost immunity in an actionable way by taking a sauna.
After just one sauna session, white cell count was markedly increased during a study performed on athletes in Finland:
“Changes in the white blood cell profile suggest a faster mobilization of cells in the first line of immune defense in athletes compared to untrained subjects after a sauna bathing session…Sauna bathing could be recommended for athletes as a means of enhancing immunological defense.” (4)
Saunas improve adaptive immunity in many other ways as well, and may be considered as tools in the prevention of the common cold. (5)
This may be why in Finland, a place that faces among the harshest winters in the world, there is on average one sauna per household across the nation! (5)
To help improve your mood this winter, consider reducing the likelihood of catching the common cold with regular sauna use. (This should include at least 3 times per 20 minutes.)
Sitting in a sauna for 20 minutes mimics many of the effects of moderate exercise on the body. This is particularly true of the cardiovascular system. Exposure to heat stress induces the temperature regulation system of the body, which means that heart rate is elevated in order to engage the sweating mechanism. As the body cools itself through the release of sweat, it is also activating the entirety of the cardiovascular system in much the same way it would during a jog, bike ride, or during swimming.
If the winter climate is preventing you from engaging in some of your normal exercise protocols, then consider including sauna use as a substitute for your cardiovascular exercise if the icy streets and sidewalks are keeping you inside.
All of the endorphins released during cardiovascular exercise are sure to improve your mood!
Among many reasons why mood may decrease during the winter months is that a lack of sunlight can hamper the circadian rhythm and make it more difficult to fall asleep. (5)
Although saunas cannot replace sunlight exposure, it can be helpful to get into a sauna for a few minutes before sleep in order to elevate the body temperature. After a relaxing shower, the body’s internal temperature will naturally begin to decrease. In order for sleep to occur, the body’s internal temperature needs to drop by 1 or 2 degrees. (5)
Exiting the sauna before bed will mimic the drop in body temperature and may help you to fall asleep faster and stay asleep. Mood is most definitely related to how well an individual is able to sleep on a regular basis, by improving the quality of sleep, mood is also improved.
While the process of detoxification during a sauna may not directly link to the improvement of mood, having a purpose and reaching your goals does. As an additional means to improve winter blues, consider taking on the project of your health. Perhaps this winter is the year you commit to getting in the sauna 4 times per week to assist your system in purging built up toxins. Knowing the health benefits associated with detoxification via the sauna may help to give you a sense of purpose during the dark days of the winter. You will step into spring feeling clean and fresh from the inside out!
Sauna Bathing is Not a Substitute for Sun Bathing, but it May Help Boost Your Winter Mood
Nothing can ever replace natural sunlight and the long days of summer, however, there are actionable steps each of us can take during the winter months to improve mood, especially for those living in northerly climates where sunlight exposure is very minimal.
Saunas may help improve your mood by:
- Quite literally opening your eyes (through dilation of your pupils) to absorb more sunlight through the release of norepinephrine
- Invoking positive feel good hormones associated with cardiovascular exercise
- Improving sleep quality
- Enhancing immunity
- The process of detoxification
When the sun isn’t shining it doesn’t mean you have to stop feeling good, so consider a natural mood booster this winter by getting into your sauna for a minimum of 3-7 times per week!
(Always consult with a medical professional before engaging in regular sauna use.)