Recent times have brought about the emergence of so-called ‘solar-phobes’: people who cower from the sun’s rays, stay inside to protect themselves from the ‘big cancer ball in the sky’ and cover their skin head-to-toe when they venture out. The marketing of ultra-blocking sunscreens and special sun-protective clothing has certainly helped to reinforce these fears. But is the sun really that much of a nemesis? Or is possible that the sun is your friend, should you treat it with the respect it deserves?
Maybe we should begin with a step back. Really far back.
Humans lived as hunter-gatherers for over 300,000 years, which equates to over 97% of our existence. During that time, our bodies got used to plenty of things, including extensive time out in the sun and without much sunscreen, if any, to account for.
So what is with the sudden spike in skin cancer? Is it all really to do with ‘dreaded’ sunlight?
While there are plenty of factors that could be at play, such as worsening diets and the relatively new trend of sunbathing, I am going to make the case that sunshine isn’t the villain that it is so often portrayed as.
Some degree of sensibility is in order, but it is foolish to hide from the sunshine when it has so many benefits.
Here are just some of the reasons why you should let that sunlight hit your skin this summer:
It elevates mood
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate your mood. Even just a short period of sunlight exposure can improve your mood and focus by boosting serotonin levels in your body. One study even found that people’s mood improved in as little as a week with small bursts of sunlight exposure.
As well as having direct positive effects on mood, sunlight also helps prevent against negative effects. Dr. Michael Roizen, Chief Wellness Officer at Cleveland Clinic, Ohio, states that “sunlight decreases the risk of depression in those at risk of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).” This is a condition that is perhaps more commonly known as the ‘winter blues’ and is something that I touched on in my more extensive post on Vitamin D.
It improves sleep
Everyone loves sleep.
Contrary to what our intuition might suggest, getting more sunlight actually helps us to sleep quicker and more deeply during the night. This is because sunlight is information your body uses to sync circadian rhythms (your ‘body clock’).
Sunlight is one of the most powerful indicators and influencers of your circadian rhythm, which is why you might find it difficult to sleep when it is still light outside and feel sleepy at 6pm in the winter.
What’s more, as the author of ‘Stress-Proof‘ Dr Mithu Storoni points out: “The brighter your daylight exposure, the more melatonin you produce at night.”
Melatonin is also known as the ‘sleep hormone’ and is what kickstarts your body’s nighttime sleep-preparation routine each night. The more melatonin produced in your body just before bed, the more likely you are going to have a fantastic night sleep. For some tips on increasing your melatonin levels at night, see here.
Sex drive, losing weight, pain regulation and relaxation
As leading health expert Ben Greenfield highlights in his post about skin cancer and sunlight exposure, there are many other benefits to sun exposure outside of just the classic Vitamin D production. Here is just one snippet from his detailed post:
UV radiation produces melanocyte-stimulating hormone, which is responsible for increasing skin pigmentation, but this polypeptide also contributes to sexual arousal (i.e., increases drive) and suppresses appetite. The sun’s energy also produces β-endorphins, neuropeptides that are natural opiates and function to regulate pain. These compounds not only increase tolerance to pain but also promote relaxation.
It increases bone strength and growth
While there are many benefits outside of just Vitamin D, quite a few of them are centred around this powerful vitamin. The improved health of your bones is another major one. Again, it can be difficult to see how getting a bit more sunlight can make the bones inside your body stronger, but there is strong science to back it up.
As nutritionist Brooke Zigler points out, your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium and help with bone growth and as we have already covered, sunlight is by far the most potent and efficient way of receiving the sunlight that you need. Not getting enough Vitamin D has been linked to a number of issues including decreased bone density, muscle aches, mood disorders, and a weaker immune system, to name just a few.
It strengthens your immune system
This is another point where Vitamin D comes in strong.
As Dr Roizen states: “Inadequate levels of this vitamin have been associated with an increased rate of infection, cancer, and mortality rate after surgery.”
Whether you are in the vulnerable post-surgery state or simply going about your day-to-day life, getting Vitamin D from sunlight is going to greatly contribute to your overall health.
It may reduce the risk of melanoma
Melanoma is the type of skin cancer that the sun is usually associated with. You’re excused if you needed to read that benefit again.
Exposure to sunlight may reduce your risk of melanoma, the cancer that arises from too much sun.
While an excessive amount of sunlight can and does lead to the skin cancer melanoma, safe levels of sun exposure may actually protect you from developing skin cancer.
A study published in the Lancet Journal found that when the skin is exposed to the sun’s UVB rays, there is an association with a decreased risk of melanoma. The research found that outdoor workers who were exposed to regular sunlight had a lower risk of developing skin cancer compared to their indoor counterparts.
It may be the case then that hiding from the sun at every opportunity makes you more vulnerable to the sun when you actually do get exposed to it. Whereas constant exposure at safe levels makes you less at risk. Kind of makes sense.
Disclaimer and some sensible advice
Of course, this whole article is arguing that the sun doesn’t deserve all of the bad press that it regularly gets. Sunlight is essential to our health and wellbeing and hiding from this ‘painted villain’ isn’t going to do you any good. I hope that this article has managed to point that out to you.
However, the risks posed by unsafe levels and durations of exposure are also very well-documented. While you should get some sunlight on your skin whenever you can to reap the benefits, sunbathing all day without sun lotion wouldn’t be your smartest idea. As a guideline, the NIH recommends women aged 15-60 get 15 mcg per day of vitamin D. If we revisit the advice of our nutritionist friend Zigler from earlier, she says that you can generally get this from just five to 10 minutes of sun exposure two to three times a week – no need to bask in the sun all day.
Also, in a study published in the British Journal of Dermatology, they found that you can get protective benefits of sunscreen without compromising vitamin D levels. It is often feared that putting sun protection on means that you are also blocking the benefits of Vitamin D from the sun’s rays. That doesn’t seem to be the case. Part of their conclusion was that “Sunscreens may be used to prevent sunburn yet allow vitamin D synthesis.” So don’t be afraid of putting on the protective stuff.
No content on this site should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.