Receiving health advice can be tricky. It can be difficult to track what is good for you and what is bad for you as the scientific community constantly finds new ways that everything from red wine to chocolate to cholesterol affects your body. And there are few things out there that have more conflicting evidence than the sun.
We know for certain that the sun is the leading cause of skin cancer. But evidence is building that by avoiding the sun as much as possible, we may be losing out on vital health benefits. Today, we’re going to explore some of the ways that you can incorporate those benefits into your life while also shielding yourself from the sun’s more harmful effects.
The Sun Boosts Your Mood
Have you ever noticed that simply standing in the sunshine can make you feel a little bit happier? Well, there is a scientific basis for that and it’s centered around the hormones produced by your brain.
The first is serotonin. Serotonin plays several roles in your body’s chemistry, including acting as a natural mood stabilizer. When your body’s serotonin levels are normal, you feel happier and calmer. You have an easier time focusing and feel less anxious. Meanwhile, lower-than-normal levels of serotonin have been linked to anxiety and insomnia.
So what does that mean for your relationship to the sun? Well, one of the triggering mechanisms for the release of serotonin is a bright light. In fact, bright light therapies are commonly recommended as a tool for treating seasonal depression. Enjoying a little sunlight every day can be a simple way to boost and stabilize—your mood.
The Sun is Vital in the Production of Vitamin D
Vitamin D is crucial to our bodies. It helps us maintain our body’s mineral balance by promoting the absorption of calcium in the gut. It is also required for bone growth—without it, our bones become thin and brittle. Fortunately, getting the necessary amount is as easy as taking a walk in the sunshine. Our skin generates vitamin D on its own. Exposure of the hands, face, arms, and legs to sunlight 2-3 times a week will produce an ample amount of vitamin D in our bodies.
The amount of exposure time will vary by the time of year, skin type, weather, and other factors of course but the good news is, even in bodies that are vitamin D deficient, it can be easy as lying in the sun to return us back to normal levels. Just six days of casual sunlight exposure without sunscreen can make up for 49 days of no sunlight exposure.
But as easy as treatment is, vitamin D deficiency may be more common than you think. One 2009 study showed that at the time, about three-quarters of US teens and adults were deficient in vitamin D. Older people may also be at increased risk of a deficiency, as they tend to spend less time outdoors and have fewer receptors in their skin that convert sunlight to vitamin D.
Sunlight Reduces High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is called the “silent killer.” It offers few warning signs that it has taken hold, and can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke - two of the leading causes of death in the United States.
And while sunshine alone isn’t going to solve the problem entirely, a 2014 study showed that sunlight alters levels of the small messenger molecule nitric oxide (NO) in the skin and blood, reducing blood pressure. How does it accomplish that exactly? Well, nitric oxide is a vasodilator, which means it relaxes the inner muscles of your veins, widening the passages and decreasing your overall blood pressure.
But Mind the Risks
With these kinds of benefits, it might stand to reason that you should spend all day, every day in the sun, right? Well, not so fast. Like so many things, too much of the sun can be a dangerous thing. Too much exposure to ultraviolet rays remains the leading cause of skin cancer. Be very cautious about how you expose yourself to the sun.
Be mindful of spending too much time in direct sunlight from 10am to 4pm. Between these times is generally when the most direct amount of radiation will come from the sun. Also, use sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 15 if you expect to spend any extended periods of time under the sun.