Living in areas with less sun increases your risk of OCD
- and that may down to a lack of the sleep hormone melatonin
Sunlight is important for our mental health for various reasons. At northern latitudes, we are exposed to less sunlight. According to a new American study, that increases your risk of the OCD, a psychiatric disorder characterized by compulsive thoughts and behavior. The scientists point to the fact that people with OCD often have delayed 24-hour rhythm and get to bed late at night, and they theorize that these disturbances of the circadian rhythm and lack of melatonin may play a role. This presents new potential in the treatment of the disease, and morning light is part of it. Melatonin supplements may also be worth trying.
OCD occurs in a many severities, ranging from the mild form with the occasional incident to the severely disabling form, where the affected person is haunted by compulsive thoughts and behavior around the clock. Most of us have experienced having a fear that something terrible is about to happen, but we merely push it aside as a silly idea. People with OCD feel convinced that something horrific will happen, and to avoid it, they do compulsive things such as avoiding certain numbers, paying attention not to step on the cracks in the sidewalk, or washing their hands frequently. Science does not know what causes OCD, but research suggests that this disorder is triggered by a combination of psychological and neurobiological factors that involve disturbances in the signaling substance, serotonin. Now, American scientists have come a step closer to explaining this mechanism, because they have found a close relation between serotonin and melatonin.
|Around 2-3 percent of the population suffers from OCD, which is short for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
The body’s production of serotonin and melatonin depends on light and dark
Humans are designed to be awake and active in the daytime when the sun is shining, and to sleep at night when it is dark. Since the beginning of time, it has been essential to sleep heavily and dream in order for us to recover and recharge our batteries – physically and mentally – for the following day.
There is a direct nerve connection from the eye to the pineal gland in the brain, and light affects our production of serotonin, a hormone that controls mood, digestion, memory, and many other functions. Humans who are exposed to sunlight early in the morning generally produce more serotonin during the day. At night, when it is dark outside, serotonin is converted into melatonin, a hormone that induces drowsiness and helps us obtain natural sleep with dream activity. We humans have therefore always been able to adjust to the huge difference between light and dark, which represents the astronomical day.
Figuratively speaking, the body is equipped with a clock that controls a host of biological functions in all of our cells, and that is why it is so important for us to get plenty of daylight and to sleep in a room that is completely dark.
At northern latitudes, we don’t get all that much daylight during the winter period. On the other hand, we expose ourselves to plenty of artificial light from lamps and computer screens in the evening, and that confuses the pineal gland and our inner clock.
Exciting study with fascinating results
According to Meredith Coles, Professor in psychology at Bimghamton University, State University of New York, the results of this new study are exciting because they provide an entirely new angle to understanding and treating OCD, especially when people live in areas with less sunlight.
Coles and her team of scientists looked at data from patients with OCD and compared the data with the latitude at which the participants lived. Patients with OCD often reported not being able to fall asleep when they wanted to. As a result of this, they fell asleep far too late and got up late in the morning to compensate for their lack of sleep That way, the OCD patients adapted to a delayed 24-hour rhythm, which would worsen their symptoms.
This is a vicious cycle, simply because they do not get enough morning light. Lack of light in the morning contributes to an imbalance between the body’s signaling substances and the inner clock, which depends on light and dark.
What the scientists also found was that the imbalance between signaling substances was far more pronounced at the northern latitudes, where there is less sunlight. Not only did the imbalance between serotonin and melatonin increase the risk of OCD, it also increased the risk of getting worse symptoms and for longer time, compared with OCD patient living farther to the south.
Did you know that teenagers often suffer from a delayed 24-hour rhythm, and that the body’s melatonin production decreases with age?
The American scientists say that it is still too early to implement a special new treatment based on their study results. More studies are needed where researchers look closer at the patients’ 24-hour rhythm and melatonin levels. Hopefully, future studies of OCD patients being exposed to morning light will help improve treatments in the future. Melatonin supplements are also worth considering.
Light therapy with special lamps and yellow glasses
Special light therapy lamps that emulate daylight are available, and they are especially relevant for the dark season. That way, you can stimulate the production of serotonin, which is beneficial in the daytime, and melatonin for when it is dark. Exposing yourself to the artificial light from lamps and the screens of electronic devices interferes with your body’s melatonin production. The cells of the retina are particularly sensitive to the new LED lights and the invisible blue light from computers and smartphones. This tricks the body into believing that it is morning, and then the melatonin production goes down. But we need melatonin at night to help us sleep. So when we sit late in the evening with our smartphones, laptop computers etc., we get far too little sleep. It may help your melatonin release to turn down the lights, choose yellow or red light sources, or use glasses with yellow glass that blocks the blue light. Studies show that people who use this type of glasses block out the blue light, which improves their sleep and mood.
Melatonin is a natural sleep remedy
A melatonin supplement is a natural shortcut to sleeping naturally, because it compensates for the body’s lack of the substance.
Other useful advice before bedtime
Try turning off all your electric appliances in the bedroom. Set your cell phone to “airplane mode” (don’t worry – the alarm will still go off) or leave the phone in another room. Give your pineal gland a chance to do its job – to produce melatonin. Blackout curtains may also be a good idea.
Meredith E. et al. Obsessive compulsive disorder prevalence increases with latitude. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and related Disorders. 2018
Binghamton University. Living in areas with less sun may increase your risk of OCD. ScienceDaily Juli 10. 2018
Xie Z et al. A review of sleep disorders and melatonin. Neurol Res 2017
Pierpaoli Walter, Regelson William. The Melatonin Miracle. Simon and Schuster 1996
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