Sunlight exposure…is it helpful or is it harmful?
That’s the question that this blog will answer. (I always have an opinion!)
Cover up. Put on sunscreen. Wear sunglasses. Go outside and get fresh air. Spend some time in the sun to boost your vitamin D. Get bright light exposure early in the day to help you sleep. Duplicity at its best and confusion at its worst! Which is it? Do we avoid the sun? or do we seek the sun? It’s BOTH.
We are aware of the risks of too much sun, some of them are frightening. The public service announcements don’t hold back! They scream that too much sun can cause deadly skin cancer! But did you know that it can also lead to cataracts, and even activation of viruses (think cold sores). Some of the effects are not as scary, but can result in negative changes in our skin, such as dark/sun spots (freckling), loss of skin elasticity leading to saggy skin and premature skin aging.
This fear mongering does not tell the whole story though. Sunlight and it spectra are essential to the proper functioning of the human body. Vitamin D deficiency is so common most people are not even surprised when they are told that they are vitamin D deficient. Almost daily research is finding how integral vitamin D is to the body. We now know that if affects our immune system, nervous system, bones, and other metabolic functions in the body. They are even finding evidence that low vitamin D levels plays a role in diabetes type 2 and high blood pressure.
Schematic representation of the major causes for vitamin D deficiency and potential health consequences. Holick, copyright 2007. Reproduced with permission.
Dr. Holick, is a leading authority on Vitamin D. Please visit his website at Dr. Holick
Here is a fun (and useful fact): the light spectrum that produces vitamin D is dependent on the zenith angle of the sun, so during some seasons, sunlight in certain regions does not result in vitamin D production! But that is a topic for another blog- or maybe not!
But this article isn’t just about vitamin D, it’s about sunlight.
Sun exposure has been frowned upon and we listened, to our detriment. We have worn long sleeves, applied sunscreen religiously and donned our Oakley’s. Our modern lifestyle and our tendency to work and play indoors, also has a role. And this lack of sunlight has affected our health, sleep and our mood.
Oh YES! Sunlight is GOOD
Sunlight has other fascinating effects on our body. One of them is our circadian rhythm (awake/sleep cycle). Our awake/sleep cycle is managed in a large part by a small gland in our brain, the pineal gland. The pineal gland plays an important role in our circadian rhythm that helps us to sleep regular hours. The pineal gland is stimulated by bright sunlight (or artificial light) in the morning. This light exposure and helps manage our melatonin production. Melatonin helps us to sleep at night.
Sun exposure has also been found to produce serotonin, which incidentally is a precursor to melatonin. Serotonin is produced during the day and converted to melatonin in the dark. Most of us have heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, which has been shown to be linked to low serotonin levels during the day (i.e. lack of sunlight exposure), and low melatonin levels at night. Poor sleep then compounds the mood issue.
What SHOULD we do?
People who work and play indoors would benefit from going out into the daylight sun, skipping the sun screen and avoiding the shade for a minimum of 10-15 min per day. Even this small amount of time can improve your sleep, your mood and your energy levels.
Go outside. Expose your arms and legs (wearing shorts 😊) for 10-15 minutes daily. this describes sensible sun exposure. Don’t put your sunglasses on right away. Eat foods high in vitamin D or eat foods that are fortified with vitamin D, and consider taking a Vitamin D supplement based on your doctor’s recommendations.
Mid-life is the time to make all and any lifestyle changes so that you can enjoy your retirement. Getting enough outdoor time can improve your fitness level.
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Health Guide You Can Trust
This is a fabulous study! Go read it!
Holick MF, Chen TC, Lu Z, Sauter E. Vitamin D and skin physiology: a D-lightful story. J Bone Miner Res. 2007;22(Suppl 2):V28–33. doi: 10.1359/jbmr.07s211. [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
Mead, Nathaniel, M. 2008. Benefits of Sunlight: a Bright Spot for Human Health. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2290997/
Wacker, Matthias and Holick, Michael, F. 2013. Sunlight and Vitamin D A global perspective for health. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3897598/