The Earth doesn't revolve around you - it revolves around the sun! Time to shine a light on the many benefits of sunlight exposure - including why avoiding the sun could be causing you more harm than good!
Sun Avoidance: A Modern Concept?
Our ancestors didn't have factor 50, straw hats and parasols to protect them from sunlight. They weren't sat indoors either. In fact, they would have only been in the confines of their shaded shelter when sleeping. Any hunting, gathering or travelling was done outdoors - underneath the beaming sun.
So if sunlight is so bad for us, how did our ancestors survive in such an exposed environment? The truth is that we have evolved to adapt to the sun and derive benefits from our exposure to it.
If we apply some forward thinking and ancestral wisdom, we can learn that there are actually some pretty amazing benefits to sun exposure - and why we should embrace sunlight, rather than avoid it.
The Benefits of Sun Exposure
Exposure to sunlight is something which us humans are equipped not only to deal with but to thrive from! Getting enough sunlight has some pretty amazing benefits for body and mind. Enjoying it safely is just one simple and easy way to promote optimal health. Here are some of the benefits of catching those rays.
Vitamin D: The Sunshine Vitamin
Perhaps the most well-known benefit of sunlight is providing us with Vitamin D. Amazingly, human skin has evolved to synthesise Vitamin D using the sun’s rays – which is just mindboggling when you think about it!
Vitamin D is essential for immunity, cognitive function and healthy bones. Getting enough sunlight is an easy and enjoyable way to reap these benefits.
Let's take a look at the sunshine vitamin in more detail and just how the sun can help to top up our levels of this essential nutrient.
How is Vitamin D made from sunlight?
Our skin is a bit like a solar panel, absorbing sunlight and converting it to something amazing, like the active form of Vitamin D – talk about biohacking!
UVB rays from sunlight (the same rays which sunscreens block) interact with a protein in skin called 7-DHC, converting it to D3 - the active form of Vitamin D. This photochemical reaction allows us to synthesise the most potent and effective form of Vitamin D, purely made possible by exposing skin to sunlight.
Whilst you can get Vitamin D from food sources, very few foods are naturally rich in D3. If you don't eat meat or fish, this is reduced even further. You can of course get Vitamin D supplements - in fact these are even recommended in the UK, where glorious sunshine is scarce. However, in the summer months it is the perfect opportunity to top up your Vitamin D levels - nature's way!
So how much sun do you need to meet your Vitamin D requirements?
There is no specific research which conclusively tells us how much sun we need to meet our Vitamin D requirements. Of course, this will differ from person to person too and is influenced by other factors such as skin colour, time of day and clothing worn.
However, the World Health Organisation recommends that exposing your face, arms and hands to sunlight for 15 minutes per day, 3 times per week is enough to top up your Vitamin D stores effectively.
Does sunscreen stop Vitamin D synthesis?
Sunscreen reduces the risk of sunburn and skin damage by blocking UVB rays from the sun. As these are the same UVB rays which the skin would ordinarily convert to Vitamin D, using sunscreen does inhibit the body's ability to synthesise Vit D from sunlight.
Of course, the type of sunscreen you use, how often it is applied and the amount of time you are exposed to sunlight will all effect the extent to which Vitamin D synthesis is inhibited.
But as a general rule, if your time spent in the sun is also spent smothered in suncream - then Vitamin D synthesis will be drastically reduce compared with exposing natural skin to sunlight.
Sunlight Exposure Increases Nitric Oxide Production
One of the lesser-known benefits of sun exposure is that it increases the production of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric Oxide is a molecule which is naturally produced in the body and has many health benefits.
Perhaps the most important benefit of Nitric Oxide is that it helps with something called 'vasodilation' - or the widening of blood vessels to you and me! This is super important for increasing blood flow and lowering blood pressure.
Studies have shown that regular sun exposure can increase the production of nitric oxide in the body. This can help to support cardiovascular health and even has some great benefits for exercise performance.
Sunlight is Essential to Regulate Circadian Rhythm
Circadian rhythm is our sleep-wake cycle, also known as the our body clock. It uses environmental cues such as light & dark, temperature and more to signal to the body when it is time to sleep.
So, it makes sense that getting more sunlight will signal to the brain that it is daytime and help to keep us awake and alert. Research has also shown that the more natural sunlight we are exposed to during the day, the easier we will sleep at night.
Sunlight is Important for Mental Health and Wellbeing
Aside from topping up our Vitamin D levels and giving us a healthy glow, sunshine is also great for our mood and mental wellbeing.
In fact, the short days and long nights of winter can significantly affect our mood and contribute to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is a condition which some people suffer with in the winter months, experiencing low mood and even depression. It is thought that a combination of reduced exposure to sunlight and lower Vitamin D levels is the main cause for these symptoms.
In comparison, getting enough sun (in the summer here in the UK – if we are lucky!) can have a positive effect on mood, motivation and overall mental wellbeing. Studies have shown that exposure to sunlight can increase the release of serotonin – a hormone which makes us feel happy.
This is so much so that light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is utilised as an effective treatment for SAD. Learn more in our article below.
Why You Don’t Always Need Sunscreen
Conventional wisdom tells us that we should wear sunscreen to protect our skin. It allows us to expose our skin to the sun whilst reducing the risk of sunburn, ageing of the skin and even damage that is often the root cause of some skin cancers. However, there are also some drawbacks to using sunscreen all the time.
The Benefits of Sun Exposure without Sunscreen
Research has shown that moderate exposure to sunlight can actually have preventative effects when it comes to skin damage. One study found that those who live in areas with less sunshine were more likely to have some chronic health conditions.
Sunlight is also recognised as an effective treatment for many skin conditions including eczema, acne and psoriasis.
Finally, exposure to sunlight without sunscreen will also have a profound effect on how much Vitamin D we can synthesise - by allowing UVB rays to be absorbed by skin cells. Providing an active form of Vitamin D means that sunlight can directly contribute to healthy bones, teeth and muscles, as well as boosting cognitive function and immunity.
How to Enjoy the Sun Safely Without Sunscreen
There is no need to choose between the benefits of sunlight and the benefits of using sunscreen. By enjoying the sunshine occasionally and safely without sunscreen, you can enjoy all of its amazing benefits without putting your skin at risk of damage. Here's how to do just that.
- Avoid prolonged time in the sun during hours when the sun is at its hottest – in the UK that’s between the hours of 11am and 3pm
- Take more caution if you have pale skin, red hair and moles or freckles
- Enjoy breaks in the shade and be sure to stay hydrated
- Never expose sunburnt skin to more sunlight, always wait until it has fully healed (and avoid burning in the first place where possible!)
- Get a good night's sleep - our resistance to sunlight is dictated by a Circadian rhythm, so getting enough sleep best prepares your body for sun exposure
- Apply the 'little and often' approach - enjoy small bouts of sun exposure without sunscreen, 10-15 minutes is enough to enjoy the benefits
- Utilise a sun exposure App such as QSun which tracks your sun exposure from your mobile.
Enjoying the sun safely is one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to look after your health and wellbeing. Be sure to follow this basic guidance to enjoy sunshine in the summer months, taking advantage of your body's innate ability to turn it into some incredible health benefits!