The holiday reads series: Warm bodies

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Here comes the sun. Are we better people once the mercury starts to rise?

There’s a perceptible shift in mood when those early days of summer roll around. Our sunlight hours bleed into the evening, the air is filled with the scent of gardenias and sunscreen and the torturous early morning alarms begin to feel, well, slightly less torturous. We emerge from dormant winter months anew – a little gun-shy perhaps at the first instance of stripping down into a bikini at the beach, but that first full body immersion in salt water is practically euphoric. If life had been feeling rather greyscale it’s as though we are suddenly living in bright technicolour. We might order a cocktail at 2pm. Take off our shoes and walk barefoot on the grass. Flirt with a stranger. Flirt with two. Wear that dress we’ve been saving for so many months, we’re ready to show some skin. The heat is officially on and we, in turn, feel profoundly changed.

Why is this? Physically we’re still the same people, and yet somehow we feel different. It could be chalked up to mind games – our brains are wired to seek out congruence, and we naturally associate dark, gloomy weather with sadness and bright weather with joy, but it feels more extreme than this. What is it about the heat that so profoundly impacts human behaviour? How is it that the changing of the seasons has the ability to acutely transform our outlook on life – what once seemed laborious (physically or emotionally) is now suddenly achievable. Simply, what is it about summer that makes us feel so damn good?

For the answer, we must look to the sun (not literally, please), a nearly perfect sphere of floating plasma and the source of life-giving heat, light and vital energy – worshipped by humans back to our earliest civilisations. During summer the length of time for which the sun appears in the sky is longer, therefore our ability to be exposed to its benefits is greater – the most important of which is its ability to convert into the hormone we know as Vitamin D. Professor of medicine and physiology, biophysics and molecular medicine at the Boston University Medical Centre, Michael F. Holick, has made a career out of examining the physical and neural effects that Vitamin D has on humans, and the consequences of not receiving adequate sun exposure. “Vitamin D is produced in the body when you are exposed to sunlight, and the major function of Vitamin D is to make sure that you are getting an adequate amount of calcium into the body by increasing the efficiency of your intestine to absorb calcium,” he explains down the line from his office in Boston. “But also, we now recognise that Vitamin D has very important overall benefits for your health.” Holick explains that when Vitamin D becomes activated, the hormone goes to your brain and can improve serotonin levels. “[It’s] the way anti-depressants work, to help maintain your serotonin levels in your brain. So we think there is a lot of chemical and biologic effects that occur in your skin as a result of being exposed to sunlight that are healthy for you and make you feel better.”

When we are exposed to sunlight we also make beta-endorphins in our skin – the happy substance that gives us what’s also known as ‘runner’s high’. “It makes you feel better. So it is very likely that one of the explanations for why people feel good when they are exposed to sunlight in the summer is because they are making beta-endorphins in their skin,” he says. Our capacity for relaxation is also heightened in the summer, Holick explains, “and one of the reasons is that you make nitric oxide, and release nitric oxide in your skin when you are exposed to sunlight. As a result it causes you to relax by causing vasodilation of your blood vessels (a widening of the vessels allowing for an increased flow) and that’s why your blood pressure can decrease.”

Given the feel-good chemicals coursing through our systems, it makes sense that summer increases our capacity for extraversion. Humans participate in a greater number of social interactions in warm weather – the inclination to get outdoors and follow through on invitations for revelry feels less tedious when heat is on your side, increasing opportunities for socialising with friends, meeting new people and embracing a generally more hedonistic approach to life. Our curfews are pushed back courtesy of those later sunsets, the desire to indulge in just one more glass of wine feels totally justified and, thanks to both of the above, the opportunity for romantic encounters increases. Our proclivity for flirtatious behaviour rises during this time of the year because we’re radiating great energy, and also receiving great energy from those around us. We feel less inhibited about making moves on potential suitors, we’re more amorous with current partners and, importantly, we’re feeling better about our own naked bodies.

Melbourne-based Psycho-Sexologist and Director of the Australian Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine, Chantelle Otten, says there is a strong connection between warmth and intimacy. “Research on embodied cognition – the formative role the environment plays in the development of cognitive processes – shows that warmth makes us more social,” she says. “When we feel hotter temperatures, we are more likely to feel a stronger connection with those around us. Summer also brings longer daylight hours and more holidays, so you have more time to get your work done and also play, reducing stress and deadline pressure. Stress and pleasure don’t mix, so having this alleviated could lead to confidence and playfulness.”

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