Welcome to the first in a series of self-care pieces we’ll be showcasing. We’ll look at a number of self-care tips, the science behind them, and how to put them into practice yourself. Today we’ll talk about sunlight.
Featured Photo by Kerrythe Mahaffey
What is It?
The sun. That giant star in the center of our solar system. It is a nearly perfect sphere of hot plasma with a radius of 695 508 km and a core temperature of more than 15 million degrees Celsius. It is 149.6 million km from the Earth and its light takes 8 minutes to reach us yet looking at it can make you blind. How many other natural things, apart from gorgons, can make you blind just by looking at them?
But when those gentle rays touch my head or my back or my hands, each atom is warmed one by one until I’m in a cozy glow of happiness that makes me want to slip into a contented nap. Much like Edward Thomas, I agree that there’s nothing like the sun.
There’s Nothing Like the Sun by Edward Thomas
There’s nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as it can be, this world being made so,
To stones and men and beasts and birds and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountains side or street of town.
The south wall warms me: November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning’s storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang. But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March’s sun,
Like April’s, or July’s, or June’s, or May’s,
Or January’s, or February’s, great days:
August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said—
Or, if I could live long enough, should say—
‘There’s nothing like the sun that shines today.’
There’s nothing like the sun till we are dead.
Like Henry Howard, I want to be set ‘where as the sun doth parch the green…in temperate heat where he is felt and seen.’
Is it a fluke that my favourite spot is in a joyous sunbeam? Apparently not. The sun is not only vital to the survival of all living things on Earth, it is also necessary to our happiness.
The Science Bit – How Sunlight Helps You
The internal body clock is set by the sun. Bright natural light tells you it’s daytime and you need to be awake, so your brain obediently stops producing melatonin and you feel alert. The soft light of the setting sun tells your body that the time to sleep is nearing and your brain starts producing melatonin again. You feel drowsy and find it easier to go to sleep (and we already know how important sleep is). This is why screens and blue electric light are not a good idea, because they confuse the body into thinking it’s still daytime which prevents your brain from producing melatonin and makes it difficult for you to fall asleep.
According to the National Institutes of Health, you need at least an hour of natural night in the morning if you want to sleep well at night. “The brighter your daylight exposure, the more melatonin you produce at night,” says Dr. Mithu Storoni, physician, researcher and author of Stress-Proof. Melatonin has “a range of effects on the brain, from improving sleep to synchronizing your biological clocks, and lowering stress reactivity,” adds Dr. Storoni. A distorted sleep pattern or circadian rhythm can lead to a weakened immune system, depression, and other disorders. A good dose of rays means good zzz’s.
Keep Extra Weight Off
According to here, here, here, and here, getting more sunlight early in the day gives you a better chance of maintaining a healthy weight. Low levels of vitamin D and serotonin are connected to weight gain.
It’s only logical. When you’re short of sleep you have less self-control, so you’re more likely to reach for that high-calorie snack. If the body is tired but is not getting sleep, it tells the brain it’s hungry. You eat more and you’re less likely to exercise or move around. A disrupted circadian rhythm leads to a disrupted metabolism, which means that your body will struggle to break down energy from food and you’ll be inclined to eat more.
Conversely, outside in the sun is where you’re more likely to engage in physical activity like cycling, gardening, and walking.
Boost Your Outlook
Sunlight encourages the release of seratonin, the happy hormone. There is also evidence that UV light may push melanocytes (those colour-making goodies in your skin) to release endorphins. You feel calm and alert and experience an overall sense of well-being.
According to the Mayo Clinic, adding a little sunshine to your life by getting outside more can relieve anxiety and reduce depression, especially the kind caused by Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Non-seasonal depression will require exposure over time to have an impact, but it does help. I can vouch for this.
One way to increase the effect is by waiting at least a few minutes before putting on sunglasses. When sunlight hits the retina, special areas of it trigger the release of serotonin. Even a touch of natural light – perhaps from standing by the window – can perk you up if you’re feeling a little low. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Human Resources found that students who get more sunlight every day perform better in tests.
Keep ‘dem Bones Strong
Sun exposure triggers production of Vitamin D from cholesterol which helps the body to absorb calcium. Calcium is essential to bone growth and strength. While you can get vitamin D from certain foods, sunlight is the primary source for the body. “The Vitamin D found in our body needs activation. The sun helps to convert inactive Vitamin D levels to active,” explains Dr. Roizen.
Too little sun can even result in rickets (increase in rickets), osteoporosis, and other bone-wasting diseases. In just 30 minutes, you can generate between 8,000 and 50,000 international units of vitamin D.
Don’t ask me how much that is. I’m guessing it’s a lot.
Reduce Your Risk of Cancer, Heart Disease, and Other Illnesses
People usually associate too much sun exposure with cancer, and this is true. But not enough sun could also lead to certain types of cancer, especially breast, pancreatic, ovarian, colon, and prostate cancers, as vitamin D is thought to protect the body from them. Safe UVB exposure can even reduce the risk of melanoma.
Lower melatonin may also lead to lower levels of chemicals that the body needs to repair DNA. Vitamin D plays a role in signalling the immune system to monitor the rest of your cells. More mutated cells means a higher risk of cancer.
According to the World Health Organization, sun exposure can treat psoriasis, eczema, jaundice, and acne in certain patients. Studies have revealed the possibility of sunlight as a treatment for a number of conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, inflammatory bowel disease, and thyroiditis, although more research is needed.
Just the feeling of relaxation that comes with a moment in a sunbeam can lower your blood pressure. But there’s a more sciency reason too: When sunlight touches the skin, a compound called nitric oxide is released into the blood vessels. This reduces blood pressure and in turn, the chances of heart disease and stroke.
How To Do It
It’s true that sunlight is hard on the skin. The short UVB wavelengths that cause sunburn can also damage DNA and suppress the skin’s immune system. The longer, more penetrating UVA wavelengths cause harm to skin cell membranes and the DNA inside. Excess sun exposure has been linked to cancer and skin disease. But you can get the rays you need without endangering yourself.
For fair-skinned people, 15-20 Minutes of sun exposure per day is safe. The darker your skin, the longer you’ll need in the sun to benefit from it. Also, choosing your time can make a difference to the quality of exposure and whether you are likely to be harmed by it. Early in the morning is safest and most effective for improving sleep patterns and maintaining your weight. You are more likely to get sunburned between 10am and 4pm, when the sun’s rays are most direct. Outside of these times you can safely get 15 minutes without sunscreen.
It does not help to get a large amount of sun on one day and no sun the rest of the week. According to WHO, you need at least 15 minutes on your arms, hands, and face 2-3 times per week to reap the benefits. That’s without sunscreen or clothing covering those areas, otherwise vitamin D production won’t be triggered.
If you are going to be outside longer than 15 minutes or between 10am and 4pm, make like an Australian and slip, slop, slap! Slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen and slap on a hat. Apply a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher and wait 10-20 minutes for the sunblock to take effect before going outside.
Protect your face and neck, but let the sun hit your shoulders, arms, and legs. Check moles and any skin changes to make sure you are not in danger of cancer or melanoma. Bear in mind that fairer skin types are more sensitive to the sun and may burn quicker than darker skin types. Keep a close eye on how your skin reacts to the sun.
Northern regions may not get strong enough rays for vitamin D production during the winter season. In these areas it may be necessary to take a vitamin D supplement. You could also try a light box.
Some people, such as those who are older or overweight, have trouble producing enough vitamin D naturally and may need to take supplements for this reason. But supplements are not as effective as natural light, so make use of all the vitamin D sources available to you, including sun exposure and certain foods like cheese, eggs, and oily fish. Too many supplements can damage the kidneys, but your body will never naturally overproduce vitamin D.
Now you’ll have to excuse me. I have some rays to catch. But first, an excerpt from a poem by A.E. Housman.
How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.
How do you feel about the sun? Drop us a line in the comments.