I've lived in Chicago for 30 years and spent time in Toronto, so I am well acquainted with bleak winter months and how that can make you feel. As a clinician, I also know that getting more sun is particularly important for people with neurologic diseases. Here are three reasons why:
1. Boost Vitamin D Levels: Research suggests a link between a vitamin D deficiency and various neurologic conditions, including dementia, Parkinson's disease (PD), and multiple sclerosis (MS). While the link isn't completely understood, we do know that it is important for people with neurologic disease to get enough vitamin D. You can get vitamin D from milk and vitamin pills, but our bodies make vitamin D naturally when they are exposed to sunlight. For more information on research about vitamin D, sunshine, and dementia, click here. For information about vitamin D and MS, click here.
2. Help Prevent Osteoporosis: People with certain neurologic diseases like Parkinson's are at a higher risk of osteoporosis (thinning of the bones). This is especially worrisome when the disease symptoms make it easier to fall. The combination of osteoporosis and falls increases the chance of breaking a bone and broken bones can lead to many complications. Research suggests that exposure to sunlight can lower osteoporosis risk in people with Parkinson's disease, possibly by increasing vitamin D.
3. Lift Your Mood: Many people feel better when they are exposed to more sunlight. Getting some sunlight every day, especially first thing in the morning, can help combat the winter blues. If you've been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (a type of depression related to a lack of light), you might also benefit from a "happy lamp," which emits full UV spectrum light that mimics sunshine.
How to Seek Out the Sun. Getting more sun in the shorter days of winter takes a little more effort and vigilance than in the summer. When the sun breaks through, bundle up and go for a walk (as long as it's not too icy!) or put a chair in front of a sunny window and soak in the rays. If you can afford it, plan a trip to a warmer, sunnier state like Florida (where I'm lucky enough to work now!). Schedule time each day—particularly in the morning—to get some natural light.
Dr. Armstrong is a movement disorders specialist at the University of Florida Health Center for Movement Disorders and Neurorestoration in Gainesville and a Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN). She is also involved in the AAN's
evidence-based guideline program.