Eco Experts: What You Need to Know About Natural Light and Cleaning With Vinegar

Our eco-experts also answer your questions about protecting your outdoor furniture and if formaldehyde is safe for fabrics.

| January/February 2002

Natural light in the winter

During the winter I spend so much time indoors that I don’t get much exposure to natural light. Is this bad for my health?

—Helga Svenstrom, via e-mail

While you may not suffer specifically from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), this malady typically comes on as the dark days of winter approach, accompanied by symptoms such as depression, lethargy, difficulty concentrating, carbohydrate cravings, sleep disturbances, and social withdrawal. When less light passes through the eyes during the fall and winter months, the brain releases too little serotonin and too much melatonin, and depressive symptoms may result. SAD is generally treated with phototherapy—exposure to a specific form of intense light.

Whether or not you suffer from SAD, you’re right about getting outside: Exposure to natural light is important at all times of year. Even with the danger of sunburn and skin cancer from harmful rays penetrating the thinning ozone layer, it’s important to keep in mind that some sunshine is vital to good health. The interaction of sunlight with skin produces vitamin D, a vital nutrient that is not found in foods common in our modern diet. Vitamin D does occur naturally in egg yolks, liver, yeast, shrimp, salmon, tuna, and fish liver oils, and it is added to fortified milk and enriched bread. However, sunlight is needed to help the body synthesize vitamin D from these sources. Since ancient times, sunbathing has been recommended as a restorative for health. Modern studies have shown that exposure to the sun can increase energy levels, lower blood pressure, enhance the immune system, and have other good effects, so it’s not surprising that lack of sunshine during the winter months would have the opposite effect.

Even if you can’t get bright sunshine, it’s beneficial to expose your eyes to natural daylight rather than artificial light. It is important for our bodies to be exposed to natural light on a daily basis—just as important as getting proper nutrition, sleep, and exercise—so spend as much time outdoors as you can. Make a point to go for a walk every day. Take up some winter sports. If the weather is bad, even time beneath a protective covered porch will do you good.

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