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Adrienne Dellwo

Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome & Sunlight: Why We Need It

By September 14, 2009

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Remember back in school, how the kids would ask to have class outside on sunny spring days? Seems those kids are on to something -- sunlight is good for your brain.

Of course, the sicker we are with fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS or ME/CFS), the more we tend to stay inside. It's a natural consequence of not feeling well -- but does it also make us feel worse?

We've known for awhile now that we tend to need more vitamin D than the average person, and now there's even more reason for us to make sure we get a little sunlight on a regular basis; new research shows that it can increase cognitive function by regulating levels of serotonin and melatonin (sleep/wake cycle neurotransmitters) and blood flow to the brain.

This study was specifically on depression, but the underlying physiology of cognitive dysfunction is at least partially the same -- sleep deprivation (from inadequate serotonin/melatonin) and low blood flow impair our ability to think. Regular sunlight, according to the study, improves both.

I know, we've got several barriers to going outside a lot: the light hurts our eyes; we overheat quickly; clothing (ever the outdoor requirement) is painful; and it's a reminder that we need to pull weeds. So what are some alternatives?

  • When you're inside on a warm day, open the window (not just the curtains, but the glass) to let in sunlight. Filtered is just as good as direct.
  • Get good sunglasses and comfy clothes, and try to go out early in the morning or in the evening to avoid the worst heat.
  • Make sure to take a cold drink with you to avoid overheating.
  • The science behind this is shaky, but personally I've noticed an effect from full-spectrum light bulbs. I use them in my bathroom and in the lamp where I sit to work.

Other ways to increase serotonin (which your body then converts to melatonin) include medications (antidepressants, especially SSRI/SNRIs), supplements, and even dietary changes. One of the best ways to increase blood flow to your brain is through exercise. It doesn't have to be really vigorous, extended amounts -- just a couple minutes of stretching or leisurely walking can improve blood flow to your brain and your muscles. (Low blood volume, by the way, is getting increased attention from scientists studying FMS and ME/CFS, and it's looking like it could be a really important feature of these conditions. I'll be writing more on that soon.)

Have you found that sunlight helps you think or feel better? How do you make sure you get regular sunlight? Help us all learn by leaving a comment below!

Learn more or join the conversation!


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Photo © Darryl Leniuk/Getty Images

September 14, 2009 at 7:08 pm
(1) MyFibroHelp says:

It is truly amazing the benefits of vitamin D for everyone, not just those suffering from fibromyalgia. Decreased risk of cancer is one of those benefits.

Please have your levels checked before supplementing with vitamin D because it is possible to overdose on vitamin D supplements and have adverse effects. Something nobody with fibromyalgia wants to deal with.

Also, remember that the only way your body will make vitamin D from the sun is if the sunlight can reach your skin. Therefore, when you are out in the sun to get a healthy dose of vitamin D, make sure you do it with no sunscreen on!

Enjoy that sunlight!

September 15, 2009 at 9:33 am
(2) Sandra says:

Many drugs are sensitive to sunlight. After starting Cymbalta I developed blood lesions on both arms last year as I walked daily. Arthritis Today had a good article on this.

September 18, 2009 at 5:09 pm
(3) Kathy says:

I like to sit just inside my patio doors, enjoying the sunlight coming through them & still having the AC to keep from overheating. My grandson lies in the floor at my feet to ‘sun bathe’ with me.

September 18, 2009 at 6:46 pm
(4) Tammie says:

Thanks for writing about the benefits of sun at a time when so many are so anti-sun (even though, as someone else noted, getting sufficient Vit D actually helps prevent cancer).

I joke that I am solar powered, but in reality I’m not really joking. I am so sensitive to sunlight that I actually notice a difference in how I feel when I am swimming laps and reach the end of the pool where the sunlight is coming in, as compared to the rest of the time when I am out of the sun.

Getting sunshine helps my energy levels, my mood, & my pain levels quite a bit, and it helps my circadian rhythm to some extent. (If I don’t get sun on a regular basis, my body wants to sleep from 6 or 7 AM to 5 PM; with regular sun, I can get to sleep earlier and be up by noon which is still not great, but significantly better).

September 18, 2009 at 10:19 pm
(5) dianelee says:

When I visit my brother who lives at the beach – I always comment that I feel better the days I’m at his house – I thought, and still think, the air is different at the ocean and is very healing – now I know that the sunshine I get when I’m here is part of that healing too!

September 23, 2009 at 5:01 am
(6) Leonie says:

Hi yeah, we went on a sun filled holiday over winter this year and while everyone back at home now is sick of the rain, for the first time, I actually don’t mind it. I believe the 2 weeks in the sun on holidays topped up my levels and helped me to cope with the cloudy skies that use to leave me blue. I’m also on Vit D as found 6 mths ago I was quite deficient. I noticed the Vit D helped me think more clearly too. I aim to sunbath 10 mins in morning and 10 mins in afternoon …recommended by my doctor. I’ve got a comfy chair on my back patio I recline in, roll up my pants, sleeves and t-shirt to get as much sun to my skin as I can.

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