The sun is by far the most important source of energy for life on Earth. Every year, vacation-goers flock to the beaches in a quest for the perfect tan. Yet, each time summertime rolls around, we’re inundated with a profusion of paranoid messages about the dangers of sun exposure. Assuredly, there’s nothing fun about sunburn, and I’m not recommending you throw caution to the wind, but sensible exposure to the sun’s warming rays can ward against a host of health problems.
Best source of vitamin D
If you are avoiding the sun because you’re concerned about skin cancer or premature aging, or if you spend the majority of the daylight hours indoors, you’re actually doing yourself more harm than good. It has been shown that vitamin D deficiency plays a major role in numerous types of cancer, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, autoimmune disease, type II diabetes, depression, birth defects, and infectious disease, just to name a few.
Sunlight is the very best source of vitamin D, produced naturally when skin is exposed to the sun’s rays. For people with fair skin, about 10,000 to 25,000 IU of vitamin D is produced in response to twenty to thirty minutes of summer skin exposure, while those with a darker complexion may need to be exposed to sunlight for up to two hours to obtain the same amount.
Sunlight has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. High blood pressure is one of the strongest risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and even a small lowering of blood pressure can dramatically reduce deaths from heart attack and stroke. Another benefit of sunlight exposure is it reduces inflammation, which helps lower the risk of heart disease, as well as other inflammation-related diseases.
Resets the sleep-wake cycle
Artificial light has many benefits, such as increasing productivity, but it comes with a cost. Evening exposure to artificial light affects the circadian rhythm by suppressing the production of melatonin, an important hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle.
However, exposure to light in the morning, and throughout the day, resets the sleep-wake cycle and improves sleep at night. By intentionally exposing yourself to sunlight first thing in the morning, you can help to reset your circadian rhythm and have better sleep at night. Start your day by stepping outside into the sunlight for 15 to 20 minutes, taking advantage of this time to get in some daily exercise by going for a short walk.
Regulating the immune system
Studies have shown that adults living and working in areas with greater sun exposure have lower rates of multiple sclerosis. Moreover, rates for multiple sclerosis are higher during the winter than in summer. Evidence shows that sunlight benefits are strong for other autoimmune diseases, such as Type 1 Diabetes, and that not enough sunlight could lead to an overactive immune system that starts attacking it’s own organs and tissues.
Sunlight can relieve depression
Noontime sunshine can deliver 100,000 lux, the measurement of illuminance. In these modern times, we spend the best part of our days indoors, sitting in offices and out of the sun. We are exposed to artificial, neon lights, which are approximate 150-600 lux only. Consequently, our self-imposed deprivation of natural sunlight can cause a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depressive disorder. It is more common in winter months, but also common in people who work long hours in office buildings.
Optimizing sunlight exposure
Considering all the benefits of the sun’s rays, you might be wondering how much sun is just right. Here are some basic guidelines to consider before you venture out into the sun:
If you are fairer skinned, aim for staying in the sun for about twenty to thirty minutes, two to three times a week.For people who are darker skinned, you may need to expose yourself to sunlight for up to two hours per day to generate the same amount of vitamin D. Avoid using sunscreen to maximize the benefits.
Time, season and location:
The best time of day for catching some rays is around noon and early afternoon. During winter months, or people who live in world locations where it is not easy to get adequate sunlight, a high quality vitamin D supplement is usually recommended.
Never let yourself burn and cover yourself with light clothing, a hat and sunglasses. Shade yourself with an umbrella or tree. For safe, non-toxic sunscreens, visit Environmental Working Group’s report on sun safety here.
Children and babies:
Avoid direct sun exposure at midday and use protective clothing and hats. Infants are especially vulnerable to the toxic ingredients in some sunscreens. It is best to use clothing and shade whene possible and follow EWG’s recommendations for child-safe sunscreens.