It’s summer, and, for many people, that means spending time outdoors. Getting some sunlight on your arms and face every day can be beneficial to your body and mind. Of course, skin cancer is a major concern and should be taken seriously. It’s important to make sure you’re protecting your skin from ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, but as long as you’re taking precautions, soaking up a few daily rays can have positive effects on your health.
What are the benefits of being in the sun?
There are plenty of good things the sun can do for you. Those big health benefits come from the visible light of the sun (the light we can see versus the more harmful UV light we can’t) and the vitamin D your body makes when your skin is exposed to the sun. Here are some benefits of sunlight for your health.
- Support better sleep
- Uplift your mood
- Increase energy
- Improve symptoms of mental health conditions
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower risk of metabolic syndrome
- Heal inflammation
- Prevent cancer
- Stronger bones
- Extend life expectancy
1. Support better sleep
“Sunlight supports better sleep and sets people’s circadian rhythms by regulating the levels of serotonin and melatonin,” explains Alexis Parcells, MD, a board-certified plastic surgeon, owner of Parcells Plastic Surgery, and founder of SUNNIE Wrinkle Reducing Studio. Melatonin is a hormone that is produced in the body in the evening when it’s time to prepare your body for sleep. Waking up to bright light tells your body to stop making melatonin, setting your body up for your day. According to the National Institutes of Health, if you get an hour of light in the morning, you can sleep better at night.
2. Uplift your mood
A 2020 review suggests you have a higher risk of depression if you have low vitamin D levels. Getting some natural sunlight can increase the production of vitamin D to help with depression symptoms and improve your overall mental health and well-being.
3. Increase energy
“Sunshine gives signals to our brain to be alert and awake,” says Beth Goldstein, MD, a dermatologist at Central Dermatology Center and a cofounder at Get Mr. “During the sunny times in the year, we have more energy because our brains are being activated more.” In other words, getting outdoors can help you feel more lively and energetic.
4. Improve symptoms of mental health conditions
Studies suggest that bright light therapy (both from a lightbox and the sun) might help improve the symptoms of bipolar depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Light therapy could also help people experiencing eating disorders. There’s also some research that indicates people with acute symptoms of schizophrenia could have lower levels of vitamin D than people who don’t.
5. Lower blood pressure
“It’s thought that exposure to sunlight triggers the skin to release stores of nitrogen oxides, which cause arteries to dilate, lowering blood pressure,” Dr. Parcells explains. This exposure actually comes from UV rays, not visible light itself. When your blood pressure is lower, it’s good for your overall cardiovascular health.
6. Lower risk of metabolic syndrome
A 2020 study in mice suggested that the sun’s light can help decrease the risk of developing metabolic syndrome, which includes high blood pressure, excess body fat, and high blood sugar. This might be because a certain wavelength in sunlight can travel deep enough in your body to have an effect on certain types of adipose (fat) tissue that might protect against metabolic syndrome.
7. Heal inflammation
According to Dr. Goldstein, sunlight triggers suppression of the immune system. While it’s not a prescription to spend a lot of time in the sun getting UV radiation, the sun can help with inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, and acne. Sunlight has also been associated with improving autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
8. Prevent cancer
Certain cancers have been linked to lower levels of vitamin D. Dr. Goldstein warns it doesn’t necessarily indicate that increasing your vitamin D will decrease your risk, but it’s an association that healthcare providers are paying close attention to.
9. Stronger bones
“Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and phosphate from our diets,” Dr. Parcells explains. “These minerals are necessary for healthy bones, teeth, and muscles.” Not getting enough vitamin D can be bad for bone health. Your bones can become soft or weak without this essential nutrient. Long-term deficiency can even contribute to osteoporosis.
10. Extend life expectancy
There’s some thought that by getting enough sunlight and therefore, adequate levels of vitamin D, you can live longer. A study of 30,000 women in Sweden over 20 years indicated that those who spent more time in the sun lived up to two years longer than those who got less sun.
What happens if you don’t get enough sunlight?
Of course, not getting enough sunlight can have negative effects on both your body and mind. A lack of sunlight, such as during the winter months, can lead to a form of depression called seasonal affective disorder. This is a type of depression where the changes in season affect your mood. It can start in late fall or early winter and cause you to feel down, or have the “winter blues.” Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Getting enough vitamin D, and using a lightbox can help during the darker winter months.
Sun safety tips
While there are plenty of good things about the sun, it’s important to balance catching rays with protecting yourself from sunburn and skin cancer.
“We have to realize, skin cancer is a public health epidemic,” Dr. Goldstein cautions, “Melanoma is going to be the most common cancer in men within the next 15 to 18 years, and it’s only going to be second to breast cancer.” Luckily, there are things you can do to reduce your risk.
Wear your sunscreen
Zinc-based sunscreen is best because it acts as a barrier on top of your skin. Chemical-based sunscreens work just fine, but they’re made of synthetic ingredients. Make sure applying sunscreen is a part of your daily routine, year-round. Even in winter or on cloudy days, you’re still exposed to the harmful effects of the sun. Choose a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.
Wear a hat to protect your scalp. One with a brim helps protect your ears from sunlight exposure. Wear as much clothing as you can tolerate without becoming overheated. Consider clothing with breathable fabric. There are even clothes you can buy that help protect you from UV radiation. But unless you are outside a good portion of the day on a regular basis, your usual clothing works just as well.
Sunglasses not only protect your eyes from the damaging effects of the sun, but they can also shade the skin around your eyes as well. Look for ones that provide 100% UV protection.
Avoid the sun at certain times of day
“The noon-day sun is the strongest,” Dr. Goldstein says, “but 5 to 15 minutes of sun exposure is really all you need.” It’s best to avoid being out in the sun from 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when you have the most risk of UV exposure.
Getting a dose of vitamin D from the sun has some positive effects on your body, but know that you can reap the benefits of vitamin D from fortified milk and orange juice, along with other foods, or taking a daily supplement. Try to get out for 15 minutes of sun daily, and make sure you’re protecting your skin if you’ll be out for longer.