It’s ‘proper’ summer now and the sun is thankfully making another appearance so what better time to take the kids (which I imagine you’ve not spent nearly enough time with in the past 4 months) to the beach, on a staycation, or if you’re brave enough, abroad! Or perhaps you are lucky enough to have some time to yourself and just want to relax in your garden/a park with a book and soak up some rays.
But is it safe? A number of scientists suggest that the health benefits of moderate sun exposure may outweigh the risks.
Here are 7 reasons why getting some sun on your face may not be as bad as you think.
Sun Exposure Lowers Blood Pressure
A group of researchers at the University of Edinburgh in the UK found that a compound called nitric oxide that helps lower blood pressure, is released into the blood vessels as soon as sunlight touches the skin. Nitric oxide relaxes the blood vessels. This finding is important because up until that point it was generally agreed that sunlight’s only health benefit to humans was to stimulate production of vitamin D. A study in China (Ke L, Ho J, Feng J, Mpofu E, et al. 2013) showed an average of more than one-half hour of sun exposure per day, compared to no sun exposure, predicted a 40% reduced risk for hypertension.
Now that has got to be worth finding the time to sit and enjoy the garden or watch the world go by.
Sun Exposure Improves Bone Health
It is well known that vitamin D stimulates the absorption of calcium which strengthens bones, particularly when phosphorus is involved. When you have higher levels of vitamin D3 in your blood, you are at a lower risk of suffering fractures of pretty much all types. Vitamin D3 is formed when Vitamin D is manufactured, as part of the process of sunlight hitting the skin, which in turn regulates calcium absorption.
On the other hand, lower levels of vitamin D3 in the blood are associated with higher rates of all types of fractures, as the calcium leaves your bones and enters the blood steam to be excreted. So getting a small amount of sun exposure as you age can certainly help strengthen the bones.
Sun Exposure Improves Brain Function
Scientists have now linked Vitamin D with various functions in the body, including the brain.
More studies have found sunlight could help spur nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for the forming, organizing and storing of memories. This is because part of our brain function is influenced by a naturally produced protein called Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), one of a group of proteins that promotes neuron growth and prevents neuron death. BDNF has been shown to increase significantly after bright light exposure and in what is considered to be a remarkably important study, both light exposure and treadmill exercise increased the expression of BDNF in rats or as the researchers showed, exercise and/or bright light promoted neurogenesis (new nerve cell growth) in the adult rat brain.
Yes ok it’s rats but you get what I’m saying. Get those trainers (or ‘sneakers’ for our Trans-Atlantic cousins) on too!
Sun Exposure Eases Mild Depression
This links in with the section above. We are all familiar with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It’s a form of depression most common in the winter months. It is also common in people who work long hours in office buildings or factories and hardly get any sun. Moderate sun exposure, however, increases levels of natural antidepressants in the brain (serotonin) that can actually help relieve this and other forms of mild depression.
If you aren’t keen on sitting in the sun you may want to think about investing in a light therapy box to have at home. Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, mimics natural sunlight that stimulates the brain to make serotonin and reduces excess melatonin.
Sun Exposure Improves Sleep Quality
When sunlight hits our eyes, a message is sent to the pineal gland in the brain so production of melatonin (a hormone that helps us sleep) is shut down until the sun goes down again. Your body gets a clear signal that it’s no longer night and this helps to maintain a normal circadian rhythm. When it gets dark outside, your body gets the signal again and you feel tired. However with all the technology about these days, the body is getting ‘fake’ messages and not switching off when it should.
Low levels of melatonin production at night due to overproduction during the day has been linked to poor sleep quality, especially in older adults. If you get up early in the morning, open the curtains straight away and either sit or stand in direct sunlight for a short time (the sun doesn’t even have to be out) so your body gets the message that it is ‘day’ and triggers the pineal gland to stop releasing melatonin.
Sun Exposure Heals Some Skin Disorders
Sunlight promotes healing of skin disorders, such as acne, psoriasis, eczema, jaundice and other fungal skin infections. In one 2008 study, for example, a four-week outdoor sunbathing therapy course was successfully used to significantly clear symptoms of psoriasis in nearly 85% of subjects. Of course, it’s important to remember, while sun exposure has a therapeutic effect on the skin and sunlight has been successfully used to treat skin disorders, this alternative treatment method should be done under medical supervision to prevent negative side-effects of UV radiation.
Ok so this is the big one, and obviously really important at the moment.
Sun Exposure Enhances The Immune System
Sun exposure can help suppress an overactive immune system, which could explain why sunlight is used to treat autoimmune diseases like psoriasis. And since white blood cells increase with sun exposure and they play a key role in fighting diseases and defending the body against infection, moderate sun exposure is very helpful for your immune system.
In a recent study (Phan, T., Jaruga, B., Pingle, S. et al. Intrinsic Photosensitivity Enhances Motility of T Lymphocytes. 2016) light was found to stimulate the production of hydrogen peroxide, which boosted the activity of T lymphocytes. These cells are 1 of the 2 types of white blood cells. As little as five to 10 minutes of sun exposure were needed to boost immune cell activity.
Now I don’t want you to think that I’m saying it’s ok to lay out from 11 until 5 every day slathered in factor 15 (or even 50). When you think of the sun, your first thought might be about the damage it can do. And you’d be right – too much can cause several kinds of serious health issues. Sun exposure causes most of the skin changes that we think of as a normal part of aging. Over time, the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) light damages fibres in your skin called elastin. When these fibers break down, your skin begins to sag, stretch, and lose its ability to go back into place after stretching. The skin also bruises and tears more easily and takes longer to heal.
UVB rays are the ones which are the most beneficial but are also the most harmful. This is why you have to take into account your skin colour, where in the world you live along with the times of the day and how long you expose your skin. If you get the balance right, you can certainly reap the benefits and improve your health.