The Sun Is My Therapy, and It Should Be Yours, Too

Once spring arrives, it comes with blooming flowers, budding leaves, birds chirping and warm, sunny days. When you finally feel the long-anticipated touch of the warm rays on your skin, a smile forms across your lips—the sunny days are back!

There is something about our galaxy’s brightest star that beckons us to ditch our daily routines and savor the day with sun-filled activities. Riding bikes through the park, reading books on the beach, or sipping margaritas by the pool with your lady squad, there’s nothing better than finding a dose of health and happiness in the sun. The best part about it? There’s no need to feel guilty about indulging yourself in sun therapy.  

Different variations of sun therapy have been practiced for thousands of years. From balancing the body during the age of antiquities to treating sleeping disorders and disease centuries later, sunlight has long had a role as a healer and motivator for mankind. A few of these practices are still used today, but there have been so many more discoveries as medical studies have uncovered new information that will have your body, mind and home reaping the benefits of sunlight all year-round.

Ahead are five key benefits of soaking in the sunshine.

1. Sun Exposure Balances the Circadian Rhythm.

In the morning, the sun’s presence proclaims the dawn of a new day, and its final rays paint a colorful vision across the sky—leading us into a time of rest. It’s undeniable that the sun has an effect on your internal clock. While modern lighting has been a blessing, it is also a curse to your circadian rhythm.

A study from the University of Colorado looked into the effects of electrical and natural lighting on our sleep and wake cycles. When participants were exposed to electrical light from the comfort of their home, they fell asleep and woke later than when they were exposed to only natural light while camping. After looking at their melatonin levels, a hormone that encourages sleep, researchers found they began to rise two hours earlier when natural light was their primary form of lighting. The study proved that after just seven days of using the sun as your lamp, your body’s sleep and wake cycles will sync up with nature’s routine.   

Since your daily routine is connected to the sun, you should find different ways to expose yourself to natural light. Take your work outside when you can, or open up the curtains to fill your home with daylight. Embracing the sun can lead to a balanced circadian rhythm which can lead to better sleep, regulated body temperature and improved digestive health.

2. The Sun Is a Mood Booster.

When the sun is out, it can feel like the whole world is smiling over you. It can even make you more likely to say yes to a hot date or help out a stranger. Have you ever wondered why you feel better when the sun is shining? Sunlight actually increases your production of the mood-boosting neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.

When serotonin levels in your body increase, you feel more alert, energized and happy. A study from the Baker Heart Institute of Research found a direct correlation between serotonin levels in your brain and exposure to sunlight. During winter months, turnover of serotonin in the brain is lowest, which can cause feelings of depression. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate our attention, movement, learning and emotional responses, also has lower levels of turnover during winter.

You can even thank the dopamine boost from sunlight for feelings of pleasure and satisfaction (it’s a major contributor to your perception and motivation of rewards). A psychological study looked at 68 healthy participants and how sunlight affects the availability of dopamine receptors in your brain. Among the participants with the most exposure to sunlight, a higher density of these mood-boosting signals were found.

If you’re feeling down during the winter months or needing a mood boost any time of the year, turn to the sun for the good stuff.

3. Sunshine Enhances Cognitive Function.

Wake your brain up with sunlight! The bright white light produced from the most famous star may be what your brain needs to boost its performance. Research has shown that non-visual, higher-level cognitive functions like anxiety, mood, alertness, focus and performance are affected by light. Dr. Gilles Vandewalle, a neuroscientist at the University of Liege, has looked into the effects of light and cognitive function through multiple studies.

In a recent one, he evaluated the seasonal effects on these non-visual cognitive functions. The research uncovered patterns of brain activity that peaked in participants during summer months and showed less activity during winter, a time when the sun also seems to be less active. Dr. Vandewalle told HuffPost, “Mood and immunity are well known to change with seasons in humans and there are indications that several brain aspects could also be seasonal.”

When you take into consideration the findings of seasonal brain activity research, the benefits of sunlight for healthy cognitive function are clear–it keeps us alert, energized and performing at our best.   

4. The Sun Kills Bacteria.

As soon as I wake up in the mornings, I open all the blinds to invite the light into my home. I’ve always enjoyed it for the mood-boosting and energizing benefits, but I did not know it was improving the air quality in my home, too. In 2018, researchers from the University of Oregon proved that rooms exposed to daylight had fewer germs.

The most surprising result was that ordinary window-filtered sunlight produced similar results when it came to keeping bacteria levels down. Prior research has shown the effects of ultraviolet light on bacteria, and the outlook is not good for those microbes when the sun is out. But, most windows filter out UV light, so this latest research has us reaping the benefits of sunlight without needing to physically open the windows. This is win for our immune system and utility bill.

5. Don’t Forget the Vitamin D!

One of the best known benefits of sun exposure is the ability to absorb vitamin D. Your body needs this nutrient for bone strength, muscle function and immune system upkeep—among other things. Studies have shown that not getting enough vitamin D can lead to serious health consequences including soft, brittle bones, bone pain, and muscle pain and weakness. While you can find vitamin D in other sources like your diet and supplements, sun exposure is the best way to harvest this nutrient.

When your skin is exposed to direct sunlight, it connects with the cholesterol in your skin cells to provide them with energy so vitamin D synthesis can occur. The most important factor is direct sunlight. This process cannot happen unless your bare skin is exposed to ultraviolet B rays. That’s right: bare skin. No sunblock, UV protective clothing or standing behind a window while you absorb the sunlight. So, how much sun exposure is needed to give your body the right amount of vitamin D?

The Cleveland Clinic and Harvard Health recommend 10 to 15 minutes of sunlight on exposed arms, legs, and face a few times per week will give you a healthy dose of vitamin D. When the days are short and the nights are long, spend more than just a few times a week in the sun since its rays are not as strong. Skin color, geographical location and age are also important factors when it comes to the amount of time in the sun and vitamin D you need. Always talk to your doctor about what is right for you when it comes to your health.

You’re Dying to Know: How Do I Embrace Sun Therapy Without Getting Burned?

Photo by William Rouse

The sun is a healer and motivator, and it’s important for your mind and body to benefit from sun therapy. But like most good things—such as falling in love, shopping sprees with your best friend and eating sweet treats, it must be done in moderation. So while I would love to give you the secret to embracing sun therapy safely, there is no exact rule to follow. However, there are tools and tricks to keep in mind:

The first is the UV index which was developed by the World Health Organization and used by the United States Government to measure the level of UV radiation produced by the sun. This should be your first go-to before you start frolicking in the sun, especially when you’re after a dose of vitamin D. The values range from zero to 11+. The higher the value, the greater the risk of skin or eye damage. Use this index to gauge the best time to be in the sun. If you’re living your best life at the beach every day, then you might want to give your bare skin some sun in the mornings. But, if you live in the mountains, you might be able to spend some time in the sun on your lunch break. You can find the UV index of your city anytime on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

Since many of the sun’s benefits do not require UV radiation, use sunscreen anytime you plan on soaking in those rays. When I was growing up, my mom made it a habit of always putting our sunscreen on 30 minutes before we went in the sun. Now that research has shown that even one blistering sunburn from childhood can nearly double his or her chances developing melanoma, I’m extra grateful for her overbearing sun safety. Needless to say, I have continued the same practice in adulthood.

Your diet plays a role in embracing sun therapy without feeling the burn. Ever wonder why the melanoma rates of Mediterranean countries are much lower than the United States? That’s because their diet is full of foods that are rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. Dr. Shapira of Tel Aviv University’s School of Health found that these nutrients fortified the skin and delayed the onset of damage to the skin when exposed to UV radiation.

And, guess what? You don’t have to go all the way to Greece to benefit from their eating habits. The Mediterranean diet is consists of plenty of fruits and vegetables, olive oil on almost everything, fresh fish, whole grains and red wine. Most importantly, don’t forget to drink plenty of water and enjoy water-packed snacks to stay hydrated!

Whether you need to tune back into nature’s routine or do a better job of keeping yourself fueled with vitamin D, you should be embracing the sunlight year-round. Your mind, body and home depend on it.

Tori Tate Thomas

Senior Staff Writer: Health & Empowerment

Tori is a branding guru, social media strategist, fitness fanatic, and writer with a passion for empowering others. Born and raised at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, she spent most of her upbringing exploring the hundred-acre woods on her farm, creating a deep-rooted love for nature and adventures. Driven by her pursuit of knowledge, she finds great joy in learning. She earned her degree in journalism and electronic media from the University of Tennessee, where she also met her adoring husband.Tori has a big heart for her community; she sits on the board of directors for the local children’s advocacy center and works with United Way of Blount County as the chair of the communications committee. In her spare time, she can be found baking delicious treats, fitting in fitness, escaping to the mountains, and cheering on the Tennessee Vols with her husband. 

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