Many of us grew up fearing the sun. And considering the fact that 9,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer every day, there’s good reason to avoid unhealthy amounts of sun exposure.
That said, humans also evolved in nature, outdoors, and yes, with the sun on our skin. As it turns out, we shouldn’t be avoiding sunlight completely. In fact, getting a moderate daily dose of sunshine can benefit our health in more ways than one. Here’s how:
1. It boosts your mood
Many of us wake up in a dark room, go to work, and then sit all day under fluorescent lights. If this is familiar to you, you don’t need me to tell you that this lifestyle can be detrimental to your mental health. Experts think this has to do with a neurotransmitter called serotonin, which can decrease with a lack of sun exposure. In fact, lack of sun exposure is thought to be one of the main causes of seasonal affective disorder, also known as the seasonal blues.
2. It helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle
Exposure to sunlight first thing in the morning can signal to your body that it’s time to get up and at it. This is important because our bodies work on a 24-hour hormone cycle, called our circadian rythm, that controls our alertness during the day but also our energy levels, appetite, and even our metabolism.
According to the National Institutes of Health (1), “the main cue influencing circadian rhythms is daylight. This light can turn on or turn off genes that control the molecular structure of biological clocks. Changing the light-dark cycles can speed up, slow down, or reset biological clocks as well as circadian rhythms.”
And considering the fact that irregular circadian rhythms have been connected to sleep disorders, obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder, you want your sleep-wake cycle to be as healthy as possible.
3. It supports healthy bones
Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones. And guess where your main source of vitamin D comes from? You guessed it: the sun. Direct sunlight on the skin causes it to produce vitamin D; then, the liver and kidney convert it to 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D, which is the type of vitamin D the body can use.
If you’re not getting at least 10 to 30 minutes of direct sunshine on your face, arms, and chest at least 5 days a week, you may want to get your levels checked and consider a supplement or spending your lunch break outside.
4. It balances your immune system
Vitamin D is also an integral part of your immune system; in fact, low levels of vitamin D have been associated with conditions like Parkinson’s (2), type 1 diabetes (3), and inflammatory bowel disorders (4). Conversely, optimal levels are linked with symptom improvement.
But it’s not just vitamin D that makes sunshine healthy for your immune system. Georgetown University Medical Center researchers have also found that sunlight is able to energize T cells (5) — which play a central role in your immune system — through a separate mechanism that has nothing to do with vitamin D.
5. It promotes healthy sleep
Getting sun exposure in the morning can help you feel more alert and awake during the day, but it can also support your ability to get to sleep at night. This is because sunlight keeps the production of a hormone called melatonin (also known as our “sleep hormone”) production low throughout the day, so it can surge at night.
When melatonin is able to surge at the right time of day, it makes us sleepy, groggy, and able to drift off more quickly. Just remember that avoiding artificial light at night is as important as getting sunlight during the day. To accomplish this, turn off all electronics two hours before bed and make sure you’re using pink or orange lamp light instead of harsh overhead lights.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer webcam as well as in-person consultations for people across the country and around the world.
- “Circadian Rhythms.” Accessed March 12, 2020. https://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/pages/factsheet_circadianrhythms.aspx.
- Knekt, P., Kilkkinen, A., Rissanen, H., Marniemi, J., Sääksjärvi, K., & Heliövaara, M. (2010). Serum vitamin D and the risk of Parkinson disease. Archives of neurology, 67(7), 808–811. https://doi.org/10.1001/archneurol.2010.120
- Hyppönen, Elina, Esa Läärä, Antti Reunanen, Marjo-Riitta Järvelin, and Suvi M. Virtanen. “Intake of Vitamin D and Risk of Type 1 Diabetes: A Birth-Cohort Study.” The Lancet 358, no. 9292 (November 3, 2001): 1500–1503. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(01)06580-1.
- Carter, M. J., A. J. Lobo, S. P. L. Travis, and IBD Section, British Society of Gastroenterology. “Guidelines for the Management of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Adults.” Gut 53 Suppl 5 (September 2004): V1-16. https://doi.org/10.1136/gut.2004.043372.
- Phan, Thieu X., Barbara Jaruga, Sandeep C. Pingle, Bidhan C. Bandyopadhyay, and Gerard P. Ahern. “Intrinsic Photosensitivity Enhances Motility of T Lymphocytes.” Scientific Reports 6, no. 1 (December 20, 2016): 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep39479.
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