Most of us have gotten the message that it’s important to protect our skin from harmful effects of the sun with clothing or sunscreen. Researchers are now finding that not getting enough sun may pose an even greater health risk.
These health effects may result in part from lower vitamin D levels, but emerging research suggests some of the benefits we get from sunlight are not related to vitamin D, and supplementing with D may not produce the same benefits as exposure to the sun. So if you’ve been avoiding the sun entirely in the name of health, it may be time to rethink, particularly if you live in a northern latitude where you may have limited opportunity for sun exposure much of the year.
One study getting a lot of attention found that mortality from all sources doubled for people reporting they avoided sun compared to those who didn’t. Surprisingly, they found that sun-avoiding non-smokers had the same risk of death from all causes as smokers who sought out sun. Even deaths from skin cancer were lower in those who didn’t avoid sun exposure.
Does this study mean you should skip sunscreen altogether? Experts say no. For one thing, the study did not ask about sunscreen use or control for other factors, like diet or regular exercise. It’s possible people getting more sun were more likely to be clean-eating, outdoorsy types. We can’t know for certain the numerous factors that may have affected the study’s results.
While a small dose of sun may support better health, prolonged unprotected sun exposure still significantly increases risk of skin cancer. However, if you’re a sun-avoider, you may want to consider working in small amounts of unprotected sun time so you can to enjoy some of the impressive health benefits of soaking in the sun.
Here are some of the ways sunlight may benefit your health.
1. Lower blood pressure and improved cardiovascular health
Cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure occur much more frequently in northern latitudes than southern ones, and because it’s not clear that supplementation with vitamin D influences disease risk, researchers speculate that sun exposure affects these diseases by other means.
2. Better sleep
Our circadian rhythms, which govern the hormones responsible for sleep, are profoundly affected by our exposure to light. While light exposure at night interrupts the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, exposure to bright light during the day helps set internal clocks that ensure we produce sufficient melatonin at night. And we all know how critical sleep is to good health! The health benefits of sun exposure below are likely in part related to melatonin and improved sleep quality.
3. Improved mood
Have the lengthening days of spring been lightening your mood? There’s a good reason for that.
When you see sunlight, your retina triggers the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, and some research suggests sun hitting your skin also plays a role. Exposure to the bright light of the sun also prompts your body to make dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to euphoria.
4. Increased energy
The good night’s sleep and boost in serotonin from the sun may give you more energy as well. Low serotonin levels can cause fatigue, so a dose of sunshine may perk you up.
5. Better memory and cognition
We all know that when we sleep well our brains work better, but sun exposure may do more than help melatonin production. Exposure to UV light may prompt our bodies to make compounds that improve memory and learning. The next time you need your brain working at its best, consider spending some time outside.
6. Weight control
One study found that exposure to sunlight helped prevent obesity and metabolic syndrome in mice. A primary reason more sun may help you maintain a healthy weight: The serotonin sun helps your body manufacture has been shown to suppress appetite.
7. Reduced risk of disease
Autoimmune diseases like type I diabetes and MS, which become more prevalent the further you get from the equator, seem to be affected by exposure to the sun or vitamin D levels. Counterintuitively, risk of developing cancer may be lower in those who don’t avoid sun exposure. speculate that in some instances vitamin D may be involved and in others it’s likely melatonin, which appears to play a role in these diseases as well.
How to get your sun safely
Want to get a healthy dose of sun? As with most things, moderation is key. It doesn’t take much unprotected sun exposure to reap these benefits, and dermatologists still recommend covering up with sunscreen and protective clothing most of the time you’re in the sun to guard against skin cancer. Skin cancer risk increases with prolonged exposure, even if you’ve applied sunscreen, so be wary of getting too much of a good thing.
To get the safest dose of sun, keep an eye on your local UV index, which will change over the course of the day and vary with time of year. Be especially cautious during the middle of the day, when the UV index is highest.
You can use a sun safety calculator to estimate how much time you can be in the sun unprotected before you burn if you enter local conditions and leave SPF at 1 to indicate no sun protection. For the fair among us, that time may be under 10 minutes, depending on the UV index. Darker-skinned people can safely remain in the sun longer without sunscreen.
Don’t shun the sun, but soak up a few rays safely to reap some excellent benefits for your health!