How to get the proven benefits of sunlight—safely.
At this point, the recommendations on sun exposure is all something we have heard once or twice.
But there’s starting to be some pushback on that conventional wisdom. In a recent study, researchers noted that underexposure to sun carried significant risks, similar to smoking, obesity, and being sedentary. Other studies are noting sunshine’s happy effect on mental health, better aging, and cardiovascular benefits.
These advantages come, in part, from the way that sunshine prompts production of vitamin D, a powerhouse when it comes to health rewards. But why not just pop a supplement to emulate that sunny feeling? Because it doesn’t work as well, according to Michael Holick, M.D., director of the Heliotherapy, Light, and Skin Research Center at Boston University Medical Center.
“Humans have a lot of beneficial biological processes that occur as a direct result of sun exposure,” he tells SELF. “You might see a few of those with vitamin D supplementation, but not to the degree that you do with simply being out in the sun.”
Also, increased vitamin D isn’t the only thing that sunshine triggers. How else can catching some rays improve your life? Let us count the ways:
1. Better mood
Sunlight trips the release of serotonin and endorphins, hormones associated with happier mood, less depression, and overall calm. “You’ll notice immediately that you simply feel better,” says Holick. “That’s your whole system responding to sun.
2. Deeper sleep
Hello, better circadian rhythm. Getting sun exposure during the day—with all that yummy serotonin—also puts you on track for more effective production of melatonin, the hormone that helps sleep. Your body is more efficient at recognizing when it’s evening after receiving some sunshine-fueled input during the day. One way to amp up this effect is by waiting at least a few minutes before putting on sunglasses. It’s when sunlight hits the retina that production of serotonin begins.
3. Lower blood pressure
Anyone who’s ever encountered terms like “cabana” or “swim-up bar” knows that sunshine-saturated days bring on feelings of relaxation, but it turns out that the process is physiological as well as mental. When sunlight touches skin, a compound called nitric oxide is released into the blood vessels, a process that brings blood pressure levels down—which can lower the risks of heart attack and stroke.
4. Reduced risk of some cancers
While sunlight brings increased chances of skin cancer, a number of studies have shown associations between sun exposure and lower risks of colorectal, prostate, and breast cancer, as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Credit vitamin D for those wins.
5. Stronger bones
Appropriate levels of vitamin D also keep your bones healthy, Holick says, and that becomes even more important as we get older and menopause zaps our bone strength. But even kids are seeing the effects of lower sun exposure. Researchers worldwide are alarmed by the increase in rickets—a disease once thought to be eradicated—which softens the bones and can lead to fractures.
6. Potential weight loss
Get tan, lose weight? It’s not quite that easy (sorry). But there are some links between sunshine and weight loss. One study found that the higher your vitamin D levels were before starting a weight reduction plan, the more likely you were to succeed, especially for ditching belly fat. Another study suggested that older women who don’t get enough vitamin D may be slightly heavier than those who do.
How To Get The Sun You Need—Safely
So, should you grab a halter top and revel in that 1970s tanning tactic of baby oil and reflective blankets? Not so fast. Despite the advantages, there are still legitimate concerns about excess sun exposure—including potential melanoma and early-onset wrinkles. The trick is getting an appropriate amount without boosting your risk.
In general, target about 10 to 20 minutes of exposure on non-sunscreened skin every day. Holick notes that it’s much better to have a small amount of sun time daily rather than a sun binge on a single day, which might cause sunburn.
If only there were an app for that, you might think. Your wish is granted: Check out dminder, which lets you input skin tone, age, weight, and amount of skin exposed. Using weather and season information, the app tracks your ideal sun time for anywhere in the world.
On the non-techie side, aim to have the sun hit shoulders, arms, or legs instead of your (more wrinkle-prone) face and neck. If you’re living in a northern locale, where sunlight is scant for a chunk of the year, you might want to consider a light box, which mimics sunlight and is often used for seasonal affective disorder.
Most of all, unless you actually are a vampire (no judgment), incorporate a little sun when you can, at a sensible level, and it’s likely you’ll start seeing some benefits, Holick believes.
“Some people never would have thought that we’d start saying, ‘Get some sun, it’s good for you,’” he says. “But increasingly, we’re finding that’s exactly what you should be doing.”