The sun is central to our very existence. This singular star and, more specifically, the energy we receive as sunlight influence our daily rhythms, weather, and the seasons.
Sunlight is also used by plants to produce food, not just for themselves but for the entire food chain. So what could be the benefits of direct exposure to this life-giving energy?
Vitamin D and Its Multiple Benefits
Our body requirements of vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin,” are usually met by casual exposure to sunlight. The importance of this vitamin was first acknowledged during the Industrial Revolution in northern Europe.
Children living in cities where sunlight could not penetrate through the polluted atmosphere showed retarded growth and developed skeletal deformities.
Later studies revealed the extensive benefits of this wonder vitamin – it is required for overall well-being and especially for optimal bone health and muscle strength.
It also helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and a host of diseases.
Sunlight and Sleep: Wake Cycles
Melatonin, a hormone produced in the body during the night, controls the body’s sleep and wake cycles.
This hormone also acts as an antioxidant and helps fight infectious diseases, inflammation, and cancer, while counteracting immunodeficiencies and UVR-induced skin damage.
The production of this hormone is strongly linked to optical exposure to morning sunlight and varies with the seasons.
Sunshine and Happiness
As the numerous happy songs on sunshine vouch, sunlight is often associated with happiness in popular culture. Science also seems to back this connection. The production of the hormone serotonin, responsible for overall well-being and happiness, is influenced by sunlight.
This neurotransmitter plays an important part in functions such as mood balance, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire. Studies show that serotonin levels are directly related to the duration of bright sunlight and vary with seasons.
They are also an important factor in seasonal affective disorder.
Other Positive Effects of Sunlight
A growing body of research shows that sunlight can independently affect other physiological functions.
Sunlight helps prevent autoimmune diseases, reduces melanoma risk, and promotes healing of skin disorders like psoriasis.
Exposure to sunlight aids in the production of nitric oxide, which reduces blood pressure and thus the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Sunlight affects the behavior of our genes and reduces their inflammatory responses.
Chronic inflammation is linked to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Striking the Right Balance
In recent times, the adverse effects of sunlight have taken center stage, especially in relation to skin cancer and photo-aging. Given the numerous positive effects of sunlight, is it possible that the benefits outweigh the risks? Many scientists seem to think so. As Grant et al. state in their research paper, “sunshine is good medicine.”
A Swedish study even showed that avoiding the sun is as risky as smoking in all causes of mortality.
Lengthy exposure to sunlight, however, can raise health risks without increasing the benefits.
To minimize these risks, avoid sunburn and excess exposure to UVR. You should also increase antioxidant intake and limit fat consumption. Factors such as skin color, length of exposure, and geographic location also play a role here.
Sun protection is recommended when the UV Index is more than 3.