My family and I have just returned from a restorative trip to our favorite beach spot.
As most parents know, traveling with young children is typically not much of a “vacation”, but I find beach trips to be the exception.
Even if the days are filled with random routines, less-than-optimal nutrition, and sleepless nights, just a few hours spent soaking up the sun always hits my reset button.
Which got me thinking about the powerful, yet often misunderstood, health benefits of sunshine.
Most of us, women especially, have been taught to fear sun’s rays. To don enormous floppy hats, sweat it out under cover ups, and spray our kids from head to toe with sunblock.
And, as the wife of a dermatologist I can tell you, an awareness of the sun’s damaging potential is vital to preserving your health.
However, as with so many health-issues we have thrown the baby out with the bath water (so to speak) when it comes to overzealous sun protection. And medical science is starting to catch on to the health consequences resulting from too little sun exposure.
The sun, like most elements in nature, has as much power to heal as it does to harm.
The keys lies in understanding how to reap the sun’s amazing health benefits without overexposing yourself and damaging your skin.
Today we’ll look at 5 (among many) health benefits of sunshine plus how to gauge the optimal amount of unprotected sun for your unique constitution.
#1: The right amount of sun reduces inflammation
My guess is many of you probably already knew this.
Why? Because anyone who has struggled with skin issues, such as acne or psoriasis, knows that a little bit of sun bathing will clear up inflammatory skin conditions fast.
The sun’s anti-inflammatory properties come from its natural vitamin D, and have been proven to benefit a variety of chronic inflammatory conditions such as heart disease, psoriasis, blood sugar ailments, asthma, cognitive disorders, and even some forms of cancer.
Read on to find out more.
#2: Sunshine can help protect against childhood asthma
We all see improvements in children’s behavior and sleep patterns when they spend enough time outdoors.
But did you know time spent in the sun can also benefit your children’s lungs?
According to this study published in ScienceDaily led by researchers in Spain, children who have regular access to sunshine have a lesser incidence of respiratory disease, like asthma, than those who live in cloudier, wetter cities.
The study attributes this improved lung health to the sun’s natural abundance of immune-protective vitamin D—commonly found in lower levels in children with asthma.
I would add that the sun’s natural anti-inflammatory properties, thanks again to vitamin D, also help combat inflammation in the lungs.
#3: Sunshine may help slow weight gain and balance blood sugar
This one almost sounds too good to be true…you mean I get to sun bathe and weigh less?
But this study from the University of Edinburgh suggests that moderate sun exposure can help slow weight gain and prevent diabetes.
In this experiment scientists exposed overfed mice to UV light and observed a marked slowing in their weight gain. They also observed fewer warning signs of diabetes such as insulin resistance (aka metabolic syndrome) and abnormal glucose levels.
Interestingly, the beneficial effects of the UV light weren’t the result of increased vitamin D levels, but from nitric oxide—a compound naturally produced in the skin following sun exposure.
Another study from Northwestern University, proved that those exposed to early morning light, between 8AM and noon, had lower BMIs than those who received most of their sun exposure later in the day.
The study attributes this to how early morning light benefits our circadian clocks, which affect our quality of sleep and energy, which ultimately affect our weight, blood sugar, hormones, etc.
Both these studies provide excellent examples of how the sun’s healing powers go far beyond just the vitamin D factor.
#4: Sunshine may reduce heart attacks and prolong your life
Our new friend nitric oxide is at the heart of this study from the University of Edinburgh.
Researchers observed blood pressure levels of 24 subjects before and after exposure to tanning lamps.
During one session the subjects received heat from the lamps with UV rays, in the other session the UV rays from the heat lamps were blocked.
Researchers observed significant drops in blood pressure one hour after the sessions with UV rays, but no drop following the sessions without.
There was also no change in the subject’s vitamin D levels, proving the sun’s beneficial effects on blood pressure come from UV rays and nitric oxide.
High blood pressure is a leading cause of all types of heart disease, including stroke. The results of this study suggest the sun’s benefits on blood pressure improve overall health, prevent heart attacks, and can help prolong your life.
#5: The sun helps you fall asleep and stay asleep
In #3 we mentioned the effects of early morning sunlight on your circadian clock in regards to weight. This article: “Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health” from the National Institutes of Health, explains how sunlight helps you sleep better too.
Unfiltered bright morning sunlight helps reset your circadian clock by naturally enhancing melatonin production.
Melatonin is your master sleep hormone that helps you fall asleep and stay asleep.
Melatonin supplements are a popular natural sleep aid and may be appropriate in certain cases…but wouldn’t it make more sense to get your melatonin naturally (and free) from time spent in morning light?
Take a walk, a run, walk the dog, or eat breakfast on the porch. By getting that 20-30 minutes of morning sunlight you’ll greatly increase your chances of an awesome night’s sleep.
If getting bright morning light is not an option for your schedule or geographical location, there are various bright light therapy devices you can purchase for indoor use.
It is important to note, that early morning sunlight must be unfiltered for best results.
Windows and sunglasses block UV rays, so spending at least 20-30 minutes outside between 8AM and 12PM will give you the best type of exposure.
How much sun is optimal for you?
The answer lies in your skin color, genetic makeup, medical history, medications, the season, and your location on the map.
If you have light-colored skin, it’s spring, you have no history of skin cancer, and you live relatively far from the equator, 15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure a day is enough.
If you have very dark skin, live in a northern climate, it’s winter, and you have no history of skin cancer, you could spend up to 2 hours in the sun.
Regardless, everyone should take precautions to never let their skin burn, AND should avoid going out without protection during the hottest times of day in summer (11-3PM).
There is no one-size-fits-all sun prescription. If you have a history or are at high risk of developing skin cancer, or are taking medications do check with your dermatologist for an individual sunlight recommendation.
A Word on Vitamin D Supplementation
Vitamin D deficiency is an epidemic issue that, as you can see from the studies above, is creating a host of modern chronic diseases.
Chances are, if you don’t spend a lot of time outside and/or do not consume a diet rich in vitamin D you are probably deficient.
Getting enough sunshine can help a LOT with this, but I also recommend having your doctor check your 25-OH vitamin D levels.
This way you can monitor exactly how much you need and if supplementation, in addition to safe sun exposure, is appropriate.
Now, get out there and enjoy those healing rays!