Week 37 Tip: The Health Benefits of Getting Enough Sunshine

By: Kristin McQuivey

| September 12, 2022

Welcome back to our More Than Healthy Full Year of Resolutions. As we promised a couple of weeks ago when we discussed the health effects of earthing, this week we are talking about Tip #37, the important health benefits of getting enough sunshine. 

Sunshine generates vitamin D, which many of us think of as a nutritional superpower! Vitamin D increases brain health. It helps prevent autoimmune diseases, mental health problems, and cardiovascular disease. There is even a well-documented link between vitamin D and cancer risk. It’s so important for your health! And the truth is, regular sun exposure is the most natural way to get vitamin D. (For a refresher on how important vitamin D is, you can find all sorts of helpful information in our previous post on that topic here.)

Sun: Friend or foe?

I’m writing this post at the end of the hottest summer on record, and today is a scorching September day with temps of 102 degrees. I’m a summer gal, someone who loves to be playing outdoors in the sunshine, and I try to do as much of that as possible. But just today, my doctor called with my lab results, and it turns out that despite all that outdoor time in the sun, I’m still severely deficient in vitamin D. 

And I’m not alone. Statistics say that about 42% of the U.S. population is vitamin D deficient. If you’re over 65, premenopausal, take prescription medications long-term, or have poor nutrition habits, it’s extra likely you’re deficient too. Or, if you’re caucasian and avoid even minimal sun exposure – experts say you’re probably lacking when it comes to healthy vitamin D levels.

Shunning the sun is unhealthy

In fact, in Las Vegas, where temperatures make it painful to be in the sun for many months of the year, vitamin D deficiency is rampant. You might think that doesn’t make sense, but I have family members who live in the Vegas area, and they barely go outside, especially during the summer months. So, despite the fact that the sun shines about 310 days a year there, many of them don’t get nearly enough healthy sunshine.

The same thing is happening in sunny southern California, where Dr. Gundry has his office. He estimates that 80% of his patients are vitamin D deficient. When it comes to his patients who are battling an autoimmune disease, 100% of them have super low vitamin D levels.

We need the sun

Sunshine has gotten a bad rap as it’s been blamed for so much skin cancer. I understand that because I’ve already had my own struggles with skin cancer. But now, we’re overdoing the no sun thing. We need sun! Healthy amounts of sunshine are vital to having a healthy immune system. 

The sun is really the best source of vitamin D. When our skin is exposed to sunlight, it makes vitamin D from cholesterol. The sun’s ultraviolet B (UVB) rays provide the energy required for vitamin D synthesis to occur when it hits the cholesterol in our skin’s cells. This means our skin needs to be exposed to enough sunlight for this synthesis to be able to happen.

Because we are scared about skin cancer and premature aging in our skin due to sun exposure, many of us are constantly lathered up in sunscreens. It is true that too much sun isn’t good. But neither is too little time in the sun. This includes time spent outdoors where all that sunblock we apply keeps our skin from absorbing the rays needed to create Vitamin D. This is probably at partially why, despite the time I spend outdoors, my vitamin D levels are low. I slather on that sunscreen! 

The right formula for getting enough sunshine

Getting the right amount of sun without burning seems to be the key. Experts recommend at least 10-30 minutes (depending on the natural lightness or darkness of your skin), in the sun without sunscreen, 3-5 days per week (a hat and sunglasses are still recommended). 

In the summer, midday is the best time to get sunlight. Those UVB rays are strongest between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm, which means you need less time in the sun to make sufficient vitamin D. Studies confirm that the body is actually most efficient at making vitamin D at noon. A study in Norway found that 30 minutes of midday summer sun exposure was equivalent to consuming 10,000-20,000 IU of vitamin D. 

Then, after spending those 10-30 minutes in the sunshine, either apply sunscreen or go inside before you get a sunburn. 

A note about sunscreen 

Not only is your skin your body’s largest organ, but it is also your most exposed organ. Because of that, the health of your skin is highly influenced by various environmental factors. Sun is one of those factors. Sunscreen is another. 

Sunscreen and vitamin D production

There are a lot of varying opinions when it comes to the safety of sunscreen. We use sunscreen to protect ourselves against sunburns and skin cancer. They work because they contain chemicals that reflect, absorb, or scatter sunlight. This exposes the skin to lower levels of harmful UV rays. However, sunscreen also blocks the UVB rays that are essential for making vitamin D, which inhibits the skin from producing it. Some studies estimate that a sunscreen with SPF of 30 or more reduces vitamin D production in the body by 95-98%. But even those studies state that further research is needed on the topic. 

Types of sunscreen

There’s enough information on this topic (as well as differing opinions about it) that it could be its own blog post, but for now, I’ll just include a brief explanation about the types of sunscreen available. Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays so that your skin does not. Mineral sunscreens (also called physical sunscreens) reflect UV ways away from your skin. Experts tend to prefer mineral sunscreens because their active ingredients haven’t been shown to absorb into the blood. 

Experts acknowledge that evidence shows that many active ingredients that are common in chemical sunscreens can reach the bloodstream and remain there for days. What they don’t agree on, is whether or not we know much about what those products do once in our bloodstream. There is a pretty frightening lack of data about it, to be honest.

You might remember that there have been recent recalls of sunscreen products because they were found to have benzene in them, a known carcinogen. Benzene is linked to blood cancer and other illnesses. 78 lots of sunscreen products across several brands were recalled. Forty products were found to have significant levels of benzene in them. We have to be vigilant and proactive when it comes to choosing the products we put on our skin.

Food as sunscreen?

Our largest organ (i.e. our skin) is constantly pummeled by environmental factors. In addition to the sun’s rays and sunscreen, as discussed above, it’s also affected by the air and pollutants in the environment. All of these things can generate free radicals which are harmful to the skin.

Certain foods we eat can provide nutrients that help to fight these free radicals and protect us from sun damage. Here is a list of foods that may act as natural “sunscreen” for your skin while allowing healthy production of vitamin D:

To learn more about foods that act as sunscreen, read the full article here

Five benefits of getting enough sunshine

Now that we’ve discussed why we need some time in the sun, let’s talk more about what the proper amount of sun can do for us. Here are five of our favorite health benefits of getting enough sunshine:

Benefit #1: Getting enough sunlight helps improve sleep.

Yep, we’re talking about sleep again! That’s because we know that healthy sleep is critical to all aspects of your health. We’ve discussed many things we can do to improve our sleep. But did you know that sunshine affects healthy sleep? That’s because of sunlight’s relationship to the sleep hormone melatonin. This hormone is critical to helping us sleep. Our bodies start producing it when it’s dark, which means we should start to feel sleepy about two hours after the sun sets. 

Research shows that an hour of natural light in the morning will help to regulate your circadian rhythm by telling your body when to increase and decrease melatonin levels. This means that the more daylight exposure you can get, the better your body will produce melatonin when it’s time to go to sleep.

Benefit #2: Sunshine early in the morning can help keep the weight off.

Weight loss is not our focus here at More Than Healthy. But, it is often one of the side effects that naturally happens as you make healthier choices. And if something as simple as exposure to early morning sunshine can help reduce your BMI, we’re going to share it with you!  

One study showed that participants who got at least an hour of sunshine between 6 am and 9 am each morning had a significant reduction in BMI (body mass index). Those results might be partially attributed to better sleep quality, which always assists with weight loss, but even participants without improved sleep had a lower BMI.  

The study suggests that the decrease in BMI is due to increased leptin (the satiety hormone) and reduced ghrelin (the hormone that tells you you’re hungry). If getting out in the morning sunshine helps produce more leptin while reducing ghrelin levels, then it makes sense that you would eat less and lose weight. It’s likely that there is also an exercise component to it. If you’re up and out in the sunshine that early, chances are you’re taking a walk, doing some yardwork, or maybe out for a morning run. All of that is going to help with lowering your BMI.  

Benefit #3: The right amount of sunshine can help you to maintain strong bones.

This is one of the really important benefits of sunshine. In an earlier post, we talked about how vitamin D helps promote strong bones. Vitamin D helps the liver to process calcium, which prevents brittle, thin, or misshapen bones. Most people with osteopenia or osteoporosis have really low levels of vitamin D. And, since 1 out of 3 women and 1 of 5 men over the age of 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis, it makes sense to do whatever you can to strengthen your bones and prevent that from happening.

It’s also important to know that vitamin D is critical for your immune system, which helps reduce the risk of illness, infections, and a host of other diseases. There is also a well-documented link between vitamin D intake and risk of cancer. So get outside! Spend some time in the sunlight and increase that all-important vitamin D.

Benefit #4: The right amount of sunshine can reduce your stress.

That melatonin we talked about earlier also helps lower stress reactivity and has a calming effect, which can help reduce your stress levels.                                                                                         

Stress is so prevalent in our lives today and has such a negative effect on our health. There is cause for alarm, as the 2022 Stress in America poll, conducted by the American Psychological Association, found stunning results when it came to the percentage of Americans who categorized themselves as “severely stressed.” Even if you proactively work to control the stress in your life, it’s not always possible. It helps to have an arsenal of tricks that can help you deal with stress. Sunshine is a fairly easy one.  

This benefit of sunshine might overlap with some of the other benefits a bit. We’re less stressed when we’re sleeping better, and we’re less stressed when we’re not depressed. But another interesting and scientifically-proven side effect of sunshine is increased cognitive function. Test subjects with less sunlight exposure had noticeable cognitive impairment. I know that for me, when I’m “on my game” and feeling cognitively sharp, I’m significantly less stressed! 

When it comes to stress relief, I think there is probably also some overlap between the health benefits of getting enough sunshine and the health benefits of earthing  (or grounding). (We discussed this topic a couple of weeks ago.) If we can spend some time soaking in the sun while connecting to the earth where we can soak in those healthy free electrons, that’s a double win.

Benefit #5: Sunshine fights off depression.  

This one hits close to home, as I’ve seen this in my own family. When the days get shorter and there are a few fewer hours of daylight, I notice an increase in depression in my loved ones who struggle with depression. Although I do not have a diagnosis of depression, I feel it, too. It is easier for me to be happy during the warmer, sunnier months. 

This isn’t just in our heads. There’s a scientific reason that sunshine improves your mood. Just a few generations ago, most of the world’s population worked in agriculture and was outside for most of the day. This resulted in high levels of bright light exposure, even in winter. Summer or winter, we are outside significantly less than our ancestors. Many of us are living in a light-deprived, indoor world.

A recent, ground-breaking study showed that sunshine has a huge impact on our mental health and well-being. Results confirmed an increase in mental health distress among the population during times of the year with reduced hours of sunlight. The converse was also true; mental health improved during the lightest seasons. These findings applied to everyone, not just those diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Another study confirmed that people with vitamin D deficiencies are more likely to suffer from mental health conditions than those with adequate levels. 

Sunshine and serotonin

So why does sunshine boost your mood? Sunshine boosts your body’s level of serotonin, which is the chemical that improves your mood and helps you stay calm and focused.  When sunlight enters your eyes, it stimulates the parts of the retina that cue your brain to produce serotonin. 

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that acts like a hormone. About 90% of the serotonin found in your body is in your gut (the small intestines). It’s released into your blood circulation and absorbed by platelets. Serotonin is made from the essential amino acid adenosine tryptophan (ATP), which means it can’t be made by your body. It has to come from the food we eat – or from sunshine. Serotonin plays a key role in regulating mood, emotions, appetite, sleep, and digestion.

Getting enough sunshine makes all the difference

Have I convinced you yet? Here’s one more compelling fact about the benefits of the sun. Getting enough sunshine might even be linked to longer life. A study that followed 30,000 Swedish women revealed that those who spent more time in the sun lived six months to two years longer than women with less sun exposure. 

In case you’re still feeling hesitant about the risks of sun exposure, let’s circle back one last time to the link between cancer and sunshine.

Is skin cancer about more than sun exposure?

Although long-term, unprotected sun exposure is a leading cause of skin cancer, doctors are starting to recognize that it’s not the only cause

Consider David Meine’s experience with skin cancer:

“I’ve dealt with skin cancer pretty much my whole life, including basal cell, squamous, and melanoma. I’ve had it burned off, scraped off, and in a few instances, it’s been cut out and left a big scar. Like most of you, I blamed it on sun exposure when I was a kid.  Turns out some of that isn’t the problem. With my history of skin cancer, I need to go in and have it checked every six months. Since I’ve worked on my immune system and changed my diet (removed those darn NSAIDs), and healed my gut, my skin has improved. I haven’t had any additional skin cancer scares. I’ve actually been in the sun more with less sunscreen than ever before. My dermatologist is thrilled with my results and tells me to keep up whatever I’m doing.”

David recounts his remarkable health journey in his book, Eating to Live: Unlocking the Leaky Gut Code. In addition to skin cancer, he’s battled bladder cancer three times. Since discovering how to live with optimal health through many healthy diet and lifestyle choices, however, he has had no more incidences of cancer of any sort. At More Than Healthy, we are convinced that the environment we create inside our systems (i.e. eliminating foods that are harmful to your gut biome and other important healthy choices) plays an important role in cancer’s ability to grow. And science agrees.

Sunshine – it’s preventative medicine!

I love a good health tip that’s actually fun to add to my health regimen! In fact, I think I’m going to book a winter trip to sunny Mexico and call it “vital preventative medicine.” What do you think about the health benefits of getting enough sunshine? Let us know if you have any questions. At More Than Healthy, we always love to hear from you!

For those of you interested in our free monthly More Than Healthy coaching calls, we do them once a month on a Tuesday night at 6 PM MST. Anyone can join us. Just text COACHING to 1-647-558-9895 to join our email list or watch our social media pages for the link.  

Thanks for joining us!  We’ll see you next week.