What Are the Benefits of Sunlight?
We often hear about how too much sunlight can be damaging to our body. We often hear that we should always put on sunscreen when out in the sun. We often hear that skin cancer is only caused by the sun. Today we want to pull the lid off of some of these statements as well as provide insight to the many, many benefits of the sun and sunlight.
Sunlight and darkness trigger the release of certain hormones in your brain. Exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of a hormone called serotonin (the feel-good hormone). Serotonin is associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel calm and focused. At night, darker lighting triggers the brain to make another hormone called melatonin. This hormone is responsible for helping you sleep.
Without enough sun exposure, your serotonin levels can dip. Low levels of serotonin are associated with a higher risk of major depression with seasonal pattern (formerly known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD). This is a form of depression triggered by the changing seasons and is very common in our society. Many people often don’t attribute their depression to these issues and begin to medicate which can make the underlying issue (low sun exposure) worse.
A mood boost isn’t the only reason to get increased amounts of sunlight. There are several health benefits associated with catching moderate amounts of rays. Decreased sun exposure has been associated with a drop in your serotonin levels, which can lead to major depression with seasonal pattern meaning you experience the depression only with certain seasons (often winter time). The light-induced effects of serotonin are triggered by sunlight that goes in through the eye. Sunlight cues special areas in the retina, which triggers the release of serotonin. So, you’re more likely to experience this type of depression in the winter time, when the days are shorter.
Due to this connection, one of the main treatments within the functional medicine world for depression with the seasonal pattern is light therapy, also known as phototherapy (photons come from the sun). You can get a light therapy box to have at home. The light from the box mimics natural sunlight that stimulates the brain to make serotonin and reduces excess melatonin.
Exposure to sunlight can also benefit those with:
- Other types of major depression
- Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)
- Chronic diseases including thyroid, gut, and autoimmune conditions
- Pregnant people with depression
- Anxiety-related disorders and panic attacks have also been linked with changing seasons and reduced sunlight.
Additional Benefits Of Sunlight
The sun’s benefits go beyond fighting stress. The following are some of the other reasons to catch some rays:
How Much Sun Do You Need?
Exposure to the ultraviolet-B radiation in the sun’s rays causes a person’s skin to create vitamin D. According to one study from 2008, in a 30-minute period while wearing a swimsuit, people will make the following vitamin D levels:
- 50,000 international units (IUs) in most Caucasian people
- 20,000 to 30,000 IUs in tanned people
- 8,000 to 10,000 IUs in dark skinned people
The vitamin D made through sun exposure plays a big role in bone health as well. Low vitamin D levels have been linked to rickets in children and bone-wasting diseases like osteoporosis and osteomalacia.
Low Sunlight Related To Cancers
According to researchers, those who live in areas with fewer daylight hours are more likely to have some specific cancers than those who live where there’s more sun during the day. These cancers include:
- Colon cancer
- Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Ovarian cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Prostate cancer
Skin Condition Benefits
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), sun exposure might help treat several skin conditions, too. Doctors have recommended UV radiation exposure to treat:
Autoimmune Condition Benefits
Research studies have revealed preliminary links between sunlight as a potential treatment for several other conditions. These include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
- Systemic lupus erythematosus
- Inflammatory bowel disease
Everything In Moderation
While there are a lot of good reasons to get sun, the sun emits ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UV radiation can penetrate the skin and damage cell DNA. This can lead to skin cancer or other deposits.
Most researchers don’t always have an exact measurement for how long you should stay outside to reap the benefits of sunlight. But defining an excess amount of sun exposure depends on your skin type and how direct the sun’s rays are.
People with fair skin typically get a sunburn more quickly than those with darker skin. Also, you’re more likely to get a sunburn going outside when the sun’s rays are more direct. This usually takes place between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
According to the World Health Organization, getting anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes of sunlight on your arms, hands, and face 2-3 times a week is enough to enjoy the vitamin D-boosting benefits of the sun. Note that the sun must penetrate the skin. ***Wearing sunscreen or clothing over your skin won’t result in vitamin D production.
From treating skin conditions to improving mood, sunlight has many benefits. If you live in higher latitudes with little sunlight, a light box may provide some of its mood-boosting benefits. You can reach our office for more information on which boxes we use for our patients.