The sun is a magnificent ball of plasma that provides the earth with the energy that is required for most life. The sun is 93 million miles from our planet, yet we feel its heat and benefit from the ultraviolet radiation daily. Over the years, exposure to the sun has been given a bad rap, causing people to fear sun exposure, but in reality, without consistent exposure to the sun you may not be living your best life, so let the sun shine in!
There is no doubt that the messaging about sun exposure can be confusing. It seems everyone recommends something different and there is fear associated with diseases associated with sun exposure, such as skin cancer. The good news is that over the past several decades more and more epidemiologic studies are providing a clearer picture of the benefits and risks of sun exposure. As with many things, the moderate or middle-ground approach appears to be healthier than any extreme.
In a comprehensive and easily readable review published in Environmental Health Perspectives, titled “Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health” author M. Nathaniel Mead summarizes a vast amount of research data available on the health impacts associated with exposure to the sun. From cancer to multiple sclerosis, the association and impact of ultraviolet radiation on human health cannot be denied.
One of the more familiar positive health impacts associated with ultraviolet radiation is the production of vitamin D. Vitamins are “vital amines”. Vitamins are organic molecules that are essential micronutrients, meaning they are required for life in small quantities. However, vitamins cannot be made by the human body, or cannot be made in the necessary amount, therefore they must be obtained from the diet or in the case of vitamin D, from environmental exposure to the sun.
As humans moved inside and began to cover up with clothes, the amount of daily sun exposure decreased dramatically and there was an increase in diseases such as rickets and tuberculosis (TB). In the late 1800’s, it was estimated in northern European cities that over 90% of children suffered from rickets, a disease characterized by growth retardation and skeletal deformities. Likewise, there was an increased use of “sun exposure” to successfully treat active TB. This correlation to sun exposure and health lead to the widespread acceptance and understanding of the “healthy tan”.
Research over the years has unlocked many mysteries associated with health and disease, and it is now believed that there are over 1,000 genes, which govern every tissue in the body, that are regulated or impacted by the active form of vitamin D. Like many compounds in the human body, at any given moment the compound may be found in a variety of phases or stages, each impacting a variety of metabolic pathways from the metabolism of calcium to immune system functioning.
In the 1930’s the U.S. Public Health Service began issuing warnings about sun exposure and in the 1970’s the World Health Organization established the UV Index to help frame sun protection messages to assist with the healthy exposure to the sun. Skin cancer is possible, but without exposure to the sun other major health impacts will be experienced.
There is evidence of varying degrees supporting a link between vitamin D insufficiency to multiple sclerosis, type 1 and 2 diabetes, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and cardiovascular disease. In addition, infectious diseases caused by virus appear to have a seasonality that correlates to ultraviolet exposure. Therefore, the health impacts stretch far beyond ultraviolet light and vitamin D, alone. Other health impacts independent of vitamin D include prevention of autoimmune diseases, the repairing of DNA damage, improving the treatment of skin disorders such as psoriasis, and increasing endorphin production.
Getting outside and opening your blinds are natural ways to easily experience the health benefits of the sun. When outside, being wise to manage your exposure is smart, using sunscreen, hats, and clothing can help you have a healthy exposure for which your body and mind will thank you. As our days are becoming shorter here in northern Nevada during this time of year, you may need to be more considerate of getting outside and absorbing some of those ultraviolet waves. A quick sunrise or sunset stroll or lunchtime walk will provide you many health benefits. Consider it a prescription for natural health, get outside!