While it’s crucial not to overdo it, sunlight has proven health and wellbeing benefits, so slap on some SPF and get out there amongst those rays
There’s nothing like feeling the warmth of the sun on your back to boost your body and soul. When the sun shines, your mood lightens, you have more energy and feel more positive. How important was it for everyone’s morale during those first few months of lockdown, to be able to get outdoors for an hour and exercise in the sunshine? For decades we’ve been told to cover up, apply sunscreen and avoid the sun due to the associated risks of skin cancer and premature ageing, but scientific research shows that a small daily dose of sunshine can actually work wonders for your wellbeing. Here’s what some safe sun worship can do for you.
Sunlight is the main source of vitamin D for the body. When the skin is exposed to the sun’s UVB rays, it helps stimulate the body’s production of this vital vitamin which is crucial for absorbing calcium, maintaining strong bones, supporting a healthy immune system and regulating insulin levels. It has also been suggested that vitamin D may help in the prevention of several serious health conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, joint pain, arthritis, dementia and autoimmune diseases.
It’s not purely by chance that being out in the sunshine tends to put us in a better mood. Exposure to sunlight helps you feel more positive by increasing your serotonin levels – a chemical in the brain that helps make us feel calm, happy and relaxed. Without enough sunlight, your serotonin levels can dip, and decreased serotonin levels are associated with a higher risk of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression triggered by the changing seasons, more common in the winter months when the days are darker and shorter. Think of getting out and about in the sunshine as a way of topping up your feel-good reserves for cloudier days ahead.
Sunlight is important for quality sleep. It helps regulate our sleeping patterns by maintaining the circadian rhythm: a 24-hour internal clock, known as the sleep/wake cycle. Humans have evolved to have this 24-hour cycle in sync with the light that reaches the Earth. We awake and feel alert when the sun rises and feel more drowsy and ready to sleep when it gets dark at night. After being outside in the sunshine during the day, your body is also more efficient at recognising when it grows darker in the evening. “The more sunlight exposure you get, the more melatonin, known as the sleep hormone produced by the brain to help your body sleep, your body will produce at night,” explains nutritional advisor from naturesplus.co.uk, Olivia Hemmingway. Ensuring adequate vitamin D levels through safe exposure to sunlight and diet is also important for sleeping soundly. “Clinical studies indicate that low levels of vitamin D are correlated with poor quality sleep and short sleep duration,” adds Mike Wakeman, clinical pharmacist for feelaliveuk.com.
It is very difficult to give the precise level of sun exposure required to safely provide you with enough vitamin D. How much vitamin D you obtain from the sun’s UVB rays depends on a number of different factors such as your personal skin type, your geographical location, the time of the day, weather conditions and more.
A 2018 study funded by Cancer Research UK, carried out by Professor Lesley Rhodes at Manchester University, looked at the impact of exposing 39 people of different skin types to low levels of UV rays. “We wanted to define a fairly straightforward formula for how much sunlight people would need in the UK to get enough vitamin D,” said Professor Rhodes.
Little and often seems to be the key. Once your body has produced its maximum level of vitamin D, extra sunlight does not increase production. Therefore, prolonged exposure, without adequate protection, will only result in skin damage.
The research team estimated that just nine minutes of sunlight each day at lunchtime would be enough for people with lighter skin tones to stay above the deficient category of vitamin D level throughout the year. This was based on exposure to sun in the UK, without sunscreen, on people who wore shorts and T-shirts from June to August, while only having their hands and faces exposed from March to June and from September.
After nine minutes, sun protection would become key to prevent any sun damage. In the same conditions, people with darker skin tones, that hardly ever burnt, were estimated to need 25 minutes daily exposure.
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