Health Benefits of Sunlight
While we’re all aware of the dangers of too much sun exposure, such as aging, skin cancer and DNA damage, today’s science is proving that exposure to the ultraviolet radiation (UVR) in sunlight has many beneficial effects on human health. The key is knowing the difference between getting enough exposure to sunlight and when we’re getting too much.
Sunlight and Serotonin
We’re used to hearing about how too much of the sun’s warm rays can be harmful to your skin. But did you know the right balance can have lots of mood-lifting benefits?
Sunlight and darkness trigger the release of hormones in your brain. Exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of a hormone called serotonin. 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.
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.
Sunlight and Mental Health
Decreased sun exposure has been associated with a drop in your serotonin levels, which can lead to major depression with seasonal pattern. 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 for depression with seasonal pattern is light therapy, also known as phototherapy. 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)
- pregnant people with depression
- Anxiety-related disorders and panic attacks have also been linked with changing seasons and reduced sunlight.
Building strong bones
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 thanks to the sun plays a big role in bone health. Low vitamin D levels have been linked to rickets in children and bone-wasting diseases like osteoporosis and osteomalacia.
Although excess sunlight can contribute to skin cancers, a moderate amount of sunlight actually has preventive benefits when it comes to cancer.
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
Healing skin conditions
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), sun exposure might help treat several skin conditions, too. Doctors have recommended UV radiation exposure to treat:
While light therapy isn’t for everyone, a dermatologist can recommend whether light treatments will benefit your specific skin concerns.
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
However, more studies need to be conducted before researchers can conclude that sunlight can be a treatment for these and other conditions.