Part 1: Mitochondria
Whilst much of our ‘dietary’ focus is upon the foods we eat and how much exercise we do, what we might not think about is the amount of natural light we’re getting each day, and at which times we’re getting it.
What you eat and when you eat it can be ‘hacked’ to enhance nutrient absorption, muscle growth, wound repair and even help the body move in and out of ketosis. When we exercise and the types of movements we choose can also make a big impact upon health and wellbeing. Research shows that fasted cardio (running or doing something that raises your heartrate before eating breakfast) can greatly enhance fat burning, but might also be damaging to women’s hormone and adrenal health. Drinking coffee after a workout can prevent muscle soreness, and when consumed with a carbohydrate, increases the speed at which muscles absorb glycogen and recover. The light exposure throughout all of these health practices however, will impact their effectiveness greatly. This is due to the function of mitochondria. Mitochondria are considered the ‘power generators’ of the cells, and they essentially help the body live, breathe and move by converting oxygen and nutrients into ATP – think of that as the ‘fuel’ that powers the activity of the cells. To put it simply – we can eat healthy food, practice yoga, exercise and opt for 100% organic products, but we don’t get the benefits of them if our mitochondria aren’t functioning properly!
Some of the symptoms of poorly functioning mitochondria include muscle weakness and injury, vision or hearing issues, cognitive decline and brain fog, heart, liver or kidney diseases, disturbances in heart rhythm, compromised immune function, fatigue and depression. Whilst some mitochondrial issues are more serious, there are effective ways to reverse mitochondria damage and help it function optimally again, including cold therapy (cold showers and ice baths), avoiding toxins like chemical cleaning products and pollution, eating sufficient protein, consuming vitamins C and E, and vitamin CoQ10, high intensity interval training, and periods of fasting combined with periods of eating a ketogenic diet. Underlying all of this however, is the amount and types of light we’re exposed to, which is more accessible, and something many of us can start making changes to right away.
Blue lightwaves help the body recognise when its morning, and therefore kick all the systems into action. When we see natural light in the morning, the body wakes up the digestive system, increases alertness and cognitive function, begins pumping blood to the muscles more efficiently, and helps the body’s circadian rhythms (the body clock) ‘tick’ at the right time. If we don’t get that natural light first thing after waking however, we’re essentially walking around half asleep, with melatonin (the sleep hormone) still hanging around in the hormonal systems, and a brain and digestive tract that are nowhere near prepared for the day ahead.
Seeing this blue light in the morning then is beneficial as it suppresses melatonin, but if we see it at night (emitted from screens on phones, laptops, TV and lightbulbs), it also prevents melatonin from being secreted, and therefore prevents us sleeping and getting good quality sleep. Recent reports say that teenagers who scroll though their phones and send messages at night are increasingly found to have more anxiety and depression, and issues with being able to sleep. From the Guardian: ‘A longitudinal study of 1,101 Australian high school students aged between 13 and 16 found poor-quality sleep associated with late-night texting or calling was linked to a decline in mental health, such as depressed moods and declines in self-esteem and coping ability’. Indeed, being exposed to blue lightwaves and screens at night is literally a wake up call for your body, and poor quality sleep means a higher risk for: obesity, heart disease and diabetes, depression, disrupted hormones, weak immune system, low sex drive, and greatly increases the risk of injury through exercise or things like driving and manual tasks.
If you’re experiencing sleep issues, try the following:
- Get outside ASAP after waking and expose your eyes to the morning light. Looking out the window won’t help, as the full light spectrum doesn’t come through the glass, so if you aren’t able to go outside, try opening the window wide instead.
- Let your body absorb the morning light too, as light receptors are found all over the body and in the skin, not just the eyes!
- Move and breathe deeply in the morning to kick-start your circadian rhythms
- Drink water and eat something small to tell the body a new day has arrived.
- At night, spend time outside during warmer months and go to bed when the sun sets. In Winter when the sun sets earlier, either go to bed earlier or illuminate your house with red or iridescent bulbs that don’t carry those blue lightwaves. Blue light blocking glasses are another very useful tool, and putting them on after sunset keeps that blue light out of your eyes. They’re becoming quite popular and mainstream now, so they should be quite easy to get hold of.
Apart from preventing melatonin secretion, staying up late surrounded by artificial light tricks the body into thinking it still needs to be awake and active. The important aspect to note here is that exposure to artificial light (especially at night) forces the body to keep working without receiving any natural light source – we get a lot of energy from light, not just food and water. Not getting enough daylight and then getting way too much ‘junk’ artificial light essentially starves the body of necessary sunlight, and prevents the hormones leptin and ghrelin from working properly. Leptin tells us when we’re full, and ghrelin tells us when we’re hungry. One of the main reasons messed-up sleep can lead to weight gain is because these hormones aren’t able to communicate and talk to us properly, and even if we eat enough food, we’re still starved of light energy.
We evolved and were sustained over millions of years with sunlight. It enables plants to live and grow, and we literally exist because of it. Sunlight helps our bodies and minds function, it helps regulate the body clock, and getting good amounts of sunlight simply feels good too. Are there aspects of your day you could change in order to get more natural light exposure? Could you swap your indoor gym session for an outdoor run or tree climb? Could you find ways of enjoying evenings without TV or screen time? Perhaps experiment with a few ‘light changes’ to your week; a couple or morning walks a week or an evening or two by candle light, notice how you feel and find a way to make it work for you.
Supplemental Sunshine: Getting More From Good Weather
Good morning Sunshine
Getting outside between 8-11am is absolutely vital in order to get the most from sunlight. Morning sunlight contains the lightwaves Ultraviolet-B (UVB), Ultraviolet-A (UV-A) and Infrared-A (IR-A), which help the body produce vitamin D, and are more effectively absorbed and used by the body than any food substance. Sure, we can supplement with vitamin D, but it isn’t nearly as effective as good old sunshine. Even sunshine in the Winter months benefits us in this way, meaning vitamin D levels can be maintained throughout the year if we prioritise morning walks or simply standing in the garden each morning.
Waking early enough to benefit from the morning sun as cultures have done for thousands of years virtually flicks a switch on the body clock, telling it a new day has started, and encourages digestion, cognitive function, muscle function and circulation to fire up. Without this morning burst of sunlight, the body just isn’t as aware that a new day has started, which means the food we eat for breakfast can’t be turned into energy as effectively, and the first few hours of work time may not be as effective.
Perhaps most interestingly from a mental health and mindfulness point of view, this morning sunlight has a profound and shocking impact upon mood, circadian rhythms and hormone levels. In a tiny region of the brain’s hypothalamus (the part responsible for linking the nervous system to the hormonal system, and maintaining homeostasis aspects like hunger, thirst, body temperature etc) is a sensor called the SCN (suprachiasmatic nucleus). The SCN is thought of as a circadian pacemaker, controlling sleep-wake cycles, whilst also coordinating these cycles with other circadian rhythms in other brain areas and other areas of the body. Yes, there are circadian rhythms throughout the whole of the body – a little like small body clocks in all of our cells and tissues.
Our muscles, heart, lungs, eyes, digestive system, hormonal secretions etc all have a rhythm of their own, which are each effected by all the other rhythms, and are also dependent upon all the other rhythms. Without morning sunlight switching on the body clock (to put it in very simplified terms) we’re more likely to suffer from low mood levels, eat more than we need and make poor food choices, an inability to think straight and problem solve, and impaired social skills.
We’re designed to work in harmony with both nature and our own bodies. When sunlight hits the eye’s retina, it communicates a signal to the SCN that a new day has
started. This in turn sets the body’s rhythms for a new day.
Finally, and something I’m thoroughly immersed in researching right now, is how morning sunlight deeply impacts upon mood and wellbeing levels. When these specific lightwaves from the sun enter the eye and are communicated to various parts of the brain, serotonin is released. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter found primarily in the nervous system, gut and blood platelets, and it’s one of the most powerful things for regulating mood levels. A large part of the reason why so may people are prescribed antidepressant pharmaceuticals is because of a lack of serotonin. Interestingly, this lack of serotonin seems to be found in many more people today than it ever has before, correlating with the fact that chronic disease seems to be more prevalent now than ever before, and correlating with the rise in artificial lighting, disconnect from nature, more screen time, time spent stressing about work, social media, and shutting ourselves off from the outside world.
Back To Nature
This morning light exposure may appear a clumsy and all too simple way to enhance health and wellbeing, but if humans have survived and thrived by living in a natural environment and waking up to sunlight for thousands of years, it must be doing something pretty impressive. If civilisations have been worshipping the sun and treating it as a god-like entity for centuries, maybe they knew how important it was too, without needing to google ‘benefits of sunlight’…….. If sunlight can help grow plants, crops and the food we all eat, surely it must be doing something to us when we’re immersed in it. If the technological advances we’ve created and come to rely upon are beginning to cause more harm than help, maybe it’s time to balance things out, to get back to nature, to simplify morning routines or even practice digital detox days.
Could sunlight have a potentially powerful effect on our digestion, mood levels, energy levels and cellular renewal? Could simply getting back to our natural rhythms be the very medicine and lifestyle remedy we’ve all be searching for? We’ll only know if we give it a go.
Solstice Rituals & Reconnecting To The Sun
Revered for thousands of years as the original form of god, the sun not only warms us and enables everything on earth to thrive, but signifies an ever-present power and giver of life. Throughout history, civilisations from the Mayans to the Egyptians, ancient India and China, the Romans, Mexicans, Peruvians, and of course here in the UK have worshipped the sun and created rituals around it and the summer solstice.
Megaliths throughout the world such as Stone Henge here in the UK, the Pyramid of Kukulkan in South America, Temple of The Sun in Peru, the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt and Chichen Itza in Mexico all have a significant interaction with the sun at the Summer Solstice. Whether it’s the ability to shine exactly through a specifically carved circle, to cast a particular shadow or no shadow at all, there was evidently a deeply rooted connection to nature both here on earth and in an astrological sense when these giant stone spectacles were made. Not just that, but this yearning to dedicate energy to creating something that marks the sun’s path and particular points along it hints that as humans we’ve always felt the need to connect to and be a part of nature both on the ground and in the sky.
Whether you’re venturing to the UK’s Stone Henge this summer solstice, travelling afar to ancient monuments or cultivating your own home rituals, be inspired by these Summer Solstice rituals from an array of cultures across the globe.
In Native American culture, the sun dance was and still is a very traditional ritual whereby the community gathers together to pray for healing and renewal whilst looking at the sun. These sun dances were intense events lasting around four to eight days with no food or water, beginning at sunrise and with each dancer wearing a ring of sage around the head, wrists and ankles to symbolise purity.
In ancient Egypt, the Summer Solstice welcomed Sirus, the brightest star in the sky. This point in time was just before the flood season, which was vital for nourishing crops across the land. For the ancient Egyptians, the Summer Solstice and the coming of Sirus were in fact seen as the Egyptian’s new year’s day, a time of renewal and abundance.
The ancient Roman Vestalia, honouring goddess Vesta who, along with the goddess Juno, protected marriages and was considered sacred to women. This ritual was about honouring the essence of purity and virginity by making offerings to the Vestil Virgins – a little like a gathering of nuns today. A sacred flame was guarded throughout the ceremonies of offerings, one of which was a cake made with water from a holy spring, sacred salt and ritually prepared brine. Today, a modern Vestilia ritual involves baking a cake and cleaning and decorating the home. This is also a time of cleansing and of honouring women and family.
Yin & Yang
The Chinese Summer Solstice honours the Earth, femininity and yin energy. As can be seen in the yin / yang symbol, opposite energies work harmoniously together and are essential for maintaining nature’s balance. When the fiery yang energy of the Summer therefore reaches its peak at the solstice, the calm and cooling energy of yin is honoured and welcomed in. To mark the Summer Solstice, women gave each other coloured fans to cool them down, and sweet smelling sachets as a pleasant fragrance. Throughout parts of Shandong and Beijing, chilled noodles are served as the traditional food thought the Summer Solstice time.
Fertility & Fulfilment
Pagans celebrate the Summer Solstice – also known to them as Litha – by honouring fertility, and honouring achievements, joy and fulfilment. Rituals include staying up all night with a roaring bonfire to await the morning sunrise, dancing around the fire and using sacred herbs to bless plants and animals. Although most commonly associated with Yule, mistletoe is thought to be at the height of its power during midsummer, so along with herbs, flowers and honey they’re gathered whilst they’re at the peak of goodness. Much like the Roman tradition, the Pagans would traditionally bake on the Summer Solstice to symbolise a welcoming of abundance into the home. Traditional ingredients at their peak at this time of year for cooking and gathering also include elderflower, buttermilk, rosemary, fennel, sage and thyme.
DEALING WITH SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER: HOW EXERCISE & SUPPLEMENTATION CAN HELP
Whilst the Winter months might mean cosy nights in, plenty of festive parties, warm drinks and log fires for some, for others the falling back of the clocks is the catalyst for Seasonal Affective Disorder – also known as Winter Depression, Winter Blues, and Seasonal Depression.
Characterised by people who have normal mood levels throughout the year but fall into bouts of depression during Winter, traditional symptoms include lack of energy, withdrawal from social interaction, feelings of hopelessness, sleep and appetite issues, inability to focus and loss of interest in activities. This isn’t just a dislike of cold mornings and disappointment with dark nights, it’s a psychological and physical reaction to lack of sunlight, decreased temperatures, inevitably more time indoors, but is also thought to be a slight hangover from human evolution. For many species, food is less available in the Winter months, and when humans lived in a truly natural world thousands of years ago, low mood levels would have suppressed natural hunger pangs. As SAD is more common with women, it’s also thought to be linked to an evolutionary process preventing reproduction. Studies show that SAD is more likely to occur within people who display characteristics of neuroticism, openness, agreeableness, and an avoidance-orientated coping style.
Having the tools to adapt to each season can be incredibly helpful in navigating the year successfully. Keep reading for 7 ways to effectively deal with SAD.
Sunlight isn’t as accessible at this time of year, so make the most of what you can find! Try waking up with the sun (a little easier during Winter as the sun rises later) – circadian rhythms (the internal body clock) are determined by the first natural light you see, and the first non-water item you consume, so get the day off to a good start by ‘setting off’ your body’s alarm clock with a cup of tea and a side of sunshine.
Although the outside world may not be as inviting during Winter, it’s important to get outside in the morning to take in the early morning daylight as it contains more blue lightwaves (ones that help the body properly wake up) than afternoon light. This is also a good time to breathe in the fresh air and greet a new day. If you’re not able to get outside much during Winter, or you really notice the lack of sunlight, purchase a light box and have it in front of you when you’re indoors. These boxes contain the same measure of light as outdoor sunlight, and encourage the brain to believe it’s surrounded by mood-boosting sunlight. If you’re able to, a week away somewhere warm and sunny is also a wonderful way to curb SAD symptoms, and helps break up the Winter months.
Sunlight also contains valuable vitamin D, and with the standard government advice being to pop a vitamin D capsule during the Winter, this is one supplement that should be in everyone’s cabinet at this time of year. Look for a good quality, high strength supplement if you experience SAD.
WARM UP & WORKOUT
Most of us already know the positive impact exercising can have on the mind; either from reading and hearing about it, or experiencing the rush of endorphins after a run or gym session ourselves. During the Winter, ensure you keep up your regular exercise regime. If your energy levels are lacking, stick to your schedule but take it easy. Getting your daily dose of movement is important for overall wellbeing, but is even more crucial if you’re feeling down.
Take a Yoga class, go for a run, head to the gym for a weights session, swim, play sports, or simply go for a walk with a friend. Anything that gets your body moving will help!
HEALTHY FATS FOR A HAPPY MIND
Once feared, healthy fats are now an important staple in many people’s diets due to their ability to actually decrease body fat, enhance endurance, boost brain power, and regulate hormones. If that wasn’t enough, fats are also one of the most important nutrients for maintaining good mood levels! Healthy fats from Omega 3s are a well known treatment for depression and anxiety – both of which contribute to low levels of constant inflammation in the body. Ensure you’re getting enough fats from avocado, coconut, oily fish, eggs, grass fed dairy products, good quality oils, nuts and seeds. Consider adding an Omega 3 supplement like Krill Oil vitamin D to your routine at this time of year too, as they’ll both stave off SAD symptoms.
Make plans to socialise, even if it’s just with one or two other people – and stick to them. Tell the people you trust what you’re going through so they can be compassionate, but also be open to some tough love. Your friends and family may not be able to feel exactly what you’re going through, but they care about you and can see things from a clearer perspective. Ensure you speak to someone you love and trust each day, and try helping others when you can either by volunteering or simply being kind. Knowing we’ve helped someone and have done a good deed can enhance mood levels dramatically.
GET GUT HEALTH HAPPY
Your gut is so intrinsically connected to your brain, so much so in fact, that changes in the microbiome (the billions of bacteria in the gut) have been shown in several studies to be linked to depression. The gut and brain communicate via the microbiota, which links emotional and cognitive brain activity to the function of the intestines. Getting enough fibre, exercising regularly, consuming enough water, eating fresh foods as opposed to processed, and cutting down on sugar can all help improve gut health. Consuming natural probiotics like kefir and sauerkraut or a good quality probiotic can also go a long way to improving the health of the gut and therefore the whole body. A probiotic is one of the most important supplements you can add to your routine, so stock up!
Knowing what lies ahead can help you prepare for Winter properly. Gather together all the tools mentioned here, and remind loved ones that you may need some extra support in upcoming months. The other important plans to make are the ones that come to fruition after Winter. Feelings of hopelessness can be lessened if you have exciting things awaiting you in Spring. If a holiday, a new project, a career change, or a spa day are in your calendar to look forward to, you’ll know there’s light at the end of what can seem like a very long tunnel.
The mind is an incredibly powerful thing – so powerful that it can even create physical responses to our thoughts and expectations. Essentially – if we really believe we’re going to feel a certain way about something, we will. The body doesn’t always know the difference between reality and what the brain has imagined, but it reacts the same way. Basically, if you think you’re going to experience SAD and all the related symptoms every year, you can be sure that you’ll start feeling low and listless as soon as we hit October. Try observing your thoughts, writing down worries, and visualise yourself feeling happy and content during Winter. This might not be a miracle cure, but it can definitely help when it comes to SAD.
- The Light Diet By Matt Maruka
- Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life By Dr. Suhas Kshirsagar
- Jack Kruse – Google him, he has a lot of articles on sunlight
- Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unvelied By Acharya S