The role of Sunlight, Vitamin D and nature in aiding cognition in mental health

Submitted by Michael C. LaFerney RN, PMHCNS, BC, Ph. D

Tags: mental health sunlight vitamin d

The role of Sunlight, Vitamin D and nature in aiding cognition in mental health

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When I was a younger nurse I worked in a state psychiatric hospital where I met patients who had been institutionalized for much of their lives. Many of these patients had not been off their units and outside for years. They often had no families to take them out, were felt to be elopement risks, or suffered mental health issues as paranoia or agoraphobia that kept them inside. These facilities were often poorly lit with smoke so thick from smoking that you could barely see your hand in front of your face.

Windows were scarce due to the fear they could be broken and used for self harm. Although the grounds of the hospital were often beautiful with trees, flowers and animals as birds, squirrels and rabbits patients had little opportunity to view it and less time to be among it's beauty.

As time passed and new medications were developed and public health concerns became prominent things improved but certain things did not. For example the life expectancy of these patients remained low. For bipolar disorder 12 to 20 years below the national average and for schizophrenia twenty years below. Many reasons accounted for this. Smoking, poor ventilation, sanitation and diet all played a role. Also the positive symptoms of schizophrenia (hallucinations, delusions) got better with newer medications but the negative symptoms (apathy, cognition) did not. These issues remain the same today.

Most of the state hospitals of yesterday have closed and have replaced with private modern environmental designs that include sunlight and proper ventilation. Many of these have gardens or greenhouses where patients participate and nature can be viewed.There is now an understanding that nature and being outdoors is essential to our mental health and lifespans.

Cognitive symptoms and the negative symptoms of schizophrenia remain an issue. They are not helped as much by medications. This includes antidepressants. As our population grows we find a high prevalence of dementia and cognitive decline. Studies have found that low levels of Vitamin D leads to slower information processing, cognitive decline, mood disorders, and altered brain development and functioning that leads to medical issues and neuro-degenerative disorders.(1) When the patients of yesteryear were kept inside we were unwittingly worsening their mental health. And when they went outside they were often covered by sunscreen as the psychotropic medications promoted easy sunburning and this gave no Vitamin D benefit.

Today many people spend much of their lives indoors. As Vitamin D levels decrease so does cognitive ability. Vitamin D is produced when sunlight meets the skin. It is also in food items. Less than half of people over 60 years of age get enough Vitamin D.(1) This can be a problem in long-term care facilities. Even children who used to spend their days outside playing sports and with others now spend much of their time inside on their devices. Many adolescents and adults have low Vitamin D levels. Vitamin D has been known to reduce the risk for multiple cancers , heart disease and brain diseases as Multiple sclerosis. (2)

How can we aid our mental and cognitive health by using sunlight and food based Vitamin D?

It doesn't take a lot . Get fifteen to thirty minutes of sun exposure without sunscreen daily from Spring to Autumn. Late summer is best and midday is the best time to produce Vitamin D. Learn what your Vitamin D level is, strive to improve it, Obtain a baseline level and then test yearly.The proper test is called 25(OH)D (also called 25-hydroxyvitamin D). Good levels on the tests are between 54- 90 ng/ml (or 135-225 nmoles/L). And new research suggests that “optimum” levels of 80- 90 ng/ml (or 225 nmoles/L) are best. (2)

If you live in an area with low sunlight Vitamin D supplements can be a taken to improve levels.

Certain medications as Prednisone might required taking vitamin D supplementation. People with dark skin might be at risk for Vitamin D deficiency.. Learn the food it comes in. and increase the intake of these. Get out in fresh air and commune with nature.

Skin cancer is a risk with extreme sun exposure but the number of cancers sunlight prevents outweighs this risk, which can be minimized by adding antioxidants in food s and reduced fat intake. Teach children to respect but enjoy nature as a component of good mental and physical health. Ensure those who need the benefits of sunlight and fresh air the most, those with dementia,mental illness and the disabled elderly have safe access to it.


  1. LaFerney, Michael C. RN PEARLS Vitamin D deficiency in older adults Current Psychiatry. 2012 November;11(11):63-63
  2. Weickel, Frank, Vitamin D -the government gets it wrong People Against Cancer (2013) taken for the WWW February 19, 2023 at: