What’s better than sunshine? Time spent enjoying it! Now that there’s more of it, partial work-from-home schedules (and laptops) are giving millions of people the opportunity to spend more daylight work-hours in the great outdoors, be it in the back yard, on a park bench or at an outdoor cafe. A far cry from the sealed-into-an-office-cubicle lifestyle that was the norm just over 2 years ago.
Trouble is, now that so many office workers have more flexibility and control over how and where they work, they may be afraid to spend time in the sun because of skin cancer concerns and decades of browbeating from dermatologists insisting that every square inch of skin be drenched in sunscreen 24/7.
While we appreciate the concern, and there is reason to be careful, that’s not to say your skin should never see the light of day. In fact, your body, like most living things, actually needs sun to survive and thrive. Our bodies use that precious sunlight to help the skin produce the vitamin D it needs to build bones and keep them strong; help cool the flames of disease-triggering inflammation; boost the immune system and help protect you from cancer, including skin cancer (as counterintuitive as that may seem).
So, now that weekday – and not just vacation – sunshine is more accessible for many recently liberated cube warriors and desk jockeys, perhaps our approach to how we spend time in the sun needs a rethink as well. How to create a healthy relationship with the sun and reap the health rewards? Start here:
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes.
When George Harrison sang, “Here Comes the Sun”, he truly encapsulated the joyous feeling of winter’s end and the arrival of the season of ‘smiles returning to their faces.’ There’s just something about the sun – it draws us in, bringing with it a sense of hope, renewed energy and of course, light. It also feels great.
While sunlight is, indeed, life-affirming and life-supporting, get too close – or more precisely, stay in it too long – and you’ll get burned, which is where the trouble starts. However, some sun exposure, in measured doses, will actually improve your health so it is important to get some, without over-exposing or over-doing it. Remember the operative phrase here is “some exposure,” as in not long enough to make your skin pink. For many people, that’s 10-to-15 minutes or less a day. And don’t think wearing sun screen is a blank check to spend all day soaking up the sun. One application might less than an hour with sweat and/or water exposure.
Sunshine is solar medicine.
So what exactly does sunshine do for you? Lots more than you may realize. While we constantly hear about the downsides of getting too much of it, here are just a few of the ways – in sensible doses – sunshine upgrades health:
- It helps fight aging: Measured, short doses of UBV rays from sunlight on your skin actually helps boost vitamin D levels – enabling your body to produce up to 90% of what you need – which in turn helps slows rapid agers like bone thinning, cancer risk and heart disease.
- It can help nudge blood pressure in a healthier direction: Though sunshine is not a replacement for meds for those who need them, studies indicate that it can help nudge levels in a positive direction. The mechanism at play here is nitric oxide in the skin which, with time spent outdoors, reacts to the sunlight, causing blood vessels to widen, lowering blood pressure along the way.
- It’s a natural mood-booster: No surprise here, but beyond just feeling good, sunlight really does have an impact on mood, with numerous studies demonstrating vitamin D’s ability to deliver antidepressant effects. Low levels of vitamin D correlate to mental health issues like low mood, depression, seasonal affective disorder and even schizophrenia. Keeping D levels high through sensible sun exposure can provide support and, for many, improvements in mental health.
- It’s a key player in keeping immunity strong: With sensible sun exposure comes better vitamin D levels. As there are vitamin D receptors on our immune cells, the thinking is that vitamin D deficiencies leave body systems more vulnerable to infection – so healthy D levels are key, as are more disease-fighting, immunity-supporting white blood cells, which increase with sun exposure. It’s also interesting to note that a number of researchers think there may also be a link between sunlight exposure and COVID-19 death rates, with one study concluding that people living in areas with the highest level of exposure to UVA rays had a lower risk of dying from COVID-19 compared with those with lower levels.
- It tees you up for sweeter snoozing: Natural sunlight can help you sleep better at night, that is, if you grab 10 -15 minutes of the stuff in the morning. A nice morning blast of natural light lets your brain know it’s time to stop releasing the sleep hormone melatonin that helps regulate your circadian rhythms – in effect, chemically attuning your brain and body to the natural cycles of light and dark.
- It makes your brain work better: Yes, you read that right. Studies have found that sunlight can help encourage the growth of nerve cells in the brain’s hippocampus, the region that plays a major role in learning and memory. In Alzheimer’s patients, those exposed to (simulated) sunshine performed better on mental exams, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
- It helps tame skin disorders: Sunlight, and ‘bathing’ in it, in monitored, controlled, medically-supervised situations can promote healing of a number of skin conditions, including acne, psoriasis, eczema and fungal skin infections, to name a few.
- It may blunt development of metabolic and autoimmune disease: In animal studies, sunlight had been associated with a number of health benefits including protection from autoimmunity problems, cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes. UVB rays have also been shown to help curb diet-induced obesity, metabolic syndrome and atherosclerosis risk. If weight is an issue, sunshine can help here too – lower body mass indexes are associated with regular exposure to morning light. (So, who’s up for coffee on the porch?)
Let the sun shine in – sensibly.
Clearly, there are many upsides to sensible sun exposure but I’ll also say unequivocally that irresponsible sun exposure is harmful. There are no hall passes here – precautions absolutely must be taken in order to get your health-supportive dose. Think of the sun as powerful medicine — the right dose can be helpful and a too-high dose does damage. You don’t need to skip the solar medicine completely, just opt for the lowest, safest dose. Remember it’s the sunburn, not healthy sun exposure, that causes problems. Repeated sunburns, especially in children and very fair-skinned people, have been linked to melanoma, whereas regular, moderate sun exposure has not. That said, if you are ready to step carefully into the light, here are a few pointers on how to do sunshine sensibly:
1. Know who and what you are: Look into ‘Fitzpatrick Skin Typing,’ a system that classifies a variety of skin types, ranking their risk of sunburn and skin cancer, with suggestions on how to protect each specific type.
2. Manage your dose: To keep a close eye on exposure, try the Dminder app which, uses your skin tone, age, body type, location, and local weather to calculate how long you can sit in the sunshine to enable your body to generate optimal D without burning.
3. Eat sun protective foods: Add another layer of protection from the inside out by eating antioxidant-rich produce and drinking antioxidant-rich teas throughout the season the summer to boost your skin’s ability to protect itself from sun damage. Protective powerhouses include blueberries, raspberries, goji berries, pomegranates, green powdered mixes and fish oils. Also try adding these skin-savers to your mix:
- Krill oil which contains astaxanthin to support skin health and helps protect against sun damage.
- Alpha lipoic acid, the antioxidant that helps protect skin collagen and combat signs of cellular aging.
- Vitamin D3, to boost levels, protect against skin cancer and help make your skin more prepared for sun exposure by producing melanin faster to better protect itself.
4. Smarten up your sunscreen: Don’t let sunscreen use lull you into a false sense of security: one of the primary causes of sunburn and skin cancer is the use of poor-quality sunscreens, which may prevent burning but don’t properly defend against the UVA rays that can cause melanoma. Look for the cleanest, healthiest, best quality possible, and shop according to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Sunscreen database. And please, for the sake of yourself and others, avoid aerosol spray sunscreens, which release clouds of toxins onto your skin, into your mouth and lungs, and to anyone who is downwind!
5. Protect skin, with a lot fewer chemicals: Plenty of fabrics that you likely already own offer UV protection, including cotton, wool, canvas and denim, with tighter weaves and colored fabrics your best bet. if you work or play outdoors for extended periods, after you’ve had your 10 -15 minute dose, cover up with stylish sun-protective clothing, from makers like Solumbra.com or Collibar.com: sun-protective hats, clothing and accessories.
6. Make your own shade: Umbrellas, beach chairs with top and side panels, and “flap-hats,” with neck panels and side panels to cover the ears, aren’t just for the beach – they’ll help protect your skin when you’re spending time outdoors no matter where your day takes you.
7. Step back in at midday: The sun is at its more intense – meaning, most damaging – from 10 am – 2 pm, so chill out, well covered in a shady spot during those hours.
8. Keep conscious: Remember the sun is a powerful force, some good, some not so much, so take it seriously. Promise me you’ll never, ever fall asleep in the sun without protection; that you won’t be fooled by cloudy days which can burn you just as easily as the sunny ones; and at all costs, stay from tanning beds!
Have a safe and healthy summer!