With the days being so much shorter and darker recently, getting some sun each day is even more important for your physical and mental health. No doubt, too much sun without protection can be harmful for your skin. However, the benefits of moderate sun exposure far outweigh the risks—especially since there are plenty of ways to manage your risk of getting too much sun.
In this post, we will discuss how getting out in the sunshine can help you
- Feel happier
- Think more clearly
- Stay active
- Sleep better
- Live healthier
We will also talk about what to do if you don’t have access to a lot of sunlight, which is true for many of us during these winter months!
Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) is something you might hear about if you are discussing the dangers of sun exposure. But UVR can also do some serious good for your mental health. When you are exposed to UVR, your body releases endorphins, which are hormones that improve your mood and help alleviate pain.
When sunshine hits your skin, it activates your body’s natural serotonin-producing mechanisms in your skin. Serotonin is another hormone that makes you happier and more alert; it may also help alleviate stress.
The role sunshine plays in helping our bodies produce serotonin has been linked to the seasonal pattern of some mental health disorders like the well-known seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Lack of sunshine can lead to lower levels of serotonin. When our bodies are making less serotonin, we get less of its mood-boosting effects.
Think More Clearly
The same mechanisms in your body that help you feel happier from sun exposure may also work to improve your cognitive function. The increased level of serotonin you get from being in the sunshine can keep you calm and focused.
A study of 16,800 participants over the age of 45 indicated that people with reduced access to sunlight were more likely to experience depression or cognitive impairment. Additionally, among study participants who experienced depression, those with less sunlight exposure were more likely to experience cognitive impairment.
Though the study did not make direct conclusions, it did find compelling evidence that suggests sunlight may be a powerful force in maintaining both our physical and mental health.
If you are spending time in the sun, you are likely participating in an activity like walking, biking, hiking, playing sports, or simply gardening in your own backyard—all of which may reduce your stress levels and encourage better overall health. Studies have shown that being out in nature is linked with improved cognitive function and reduced stress.
Additionally, if you are participating in an outdoor activity, there is a probability that the activity will be social—whether or not you expected it to be. Social activities have their own mood-boosting and stress-reducing effects. So, you can combine your efforts to get some healthy sun exposure with the healthy and stress-reducing habit of staying active and interacting with your community.
Exposure to very bright light or sunshine first thing in the morning can actually help you sleep better at night. How? Well, light plays an important role in your body’s melatonin production. Your body is programmed to start making melatonin when it is dark. Melatonin makes you sleepy, so you sleep at night when it is dark. As your body is exposed to bright light, that melatonin production slows down. Thus, the exposure to light makes you stop feeling sleepy and wake up.
The earlier in the day that you are exposed to light, the sooner your melatonin production will begin at night, which means you may be able to fall asleep easier. Sunshine has a huge influence on this melatonin cycle which means it has a significant impact on your energy levels, which, in turn, will impact your sleep quality.
It is undeniable that too much sun exposure can compromise our health, but there are numerous and diverse health benefits from getting a safe dose of sunshine. For starters, sunshine triggers your body’s production of vitamin D, which is critically important for bone health and long-term muscle strength.
There are plenty of studies that have linked healthy levels of vitamin D with a reduced risk of health issues like, autoimmune disease, type 1 diabetes, breast cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Indeed, there is growing evidence that suggests a strong correlation between healthy vitamin D levels and improved, long-term health.
With the right balance of sun protection and sun, you soak in all the benefits of being out in the sunshine.
What if I can’t get out in the sunshine?
Do you work nights and sleep during the day? Or maybe you live in an area where sunshine is scarce due to weather or location. If any of these situations are true for you, you might benefit from light therapy.
Light therapy doesn’t have to be too complicated; it can be as simple as obtaining a wakeup light, which are easily found online. While these lights may not have the vitamin D-producing effects that natural sunlight does, users still receive the other mental, emotional, and sleep benefits of light exposure.
A wakeup light is an alarm clock that wakes you up using a light that gradually brightens— meant to simulate a sunrise. There are also nighttime features that simulate a sunset, gradually reducing the amount of light in your room. If you live in a situation where there is almost no sunlight for the majority of the day, you may want to try something more advanced. Talk to your doctor about other light therapy options.
Less severely, many find it difficult to get a lot of sunlight during the winter months, when we spend the short daylight hours at work, or it’s too cold for many outdoor activities. However, even 10 minutes out in the midday sun can give you many of the benefits we’ve discussed above. Take a short walk around the building or eat lunch outside if it isn’t too cold. There are a lot of ways to get sunshine, and it’s worth the effort for your health.