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Benefits of Sunlight: How To Get More No Matter Where You Live!

By: Holly Smith, M.D. - Osteopathic Medicine, B.S. - Dietetics, NASM-PES Certified Trainer,

Writer, The Fit Father Project & Fit Mother Project

benefits of sunlight

There’s nothing like warm sunshine to lift your spirits and get you motivated to take on the day. But, the benefits of sunlight go far beyond that!

Unfortunately, in the winter, the daylight hours decrease, and sunset comes earlier every day.

But just because it's winter doesn’t mean you have to lose out on the numerous benefits of sunlight!

Sunlight helps your body generate vitamin D, and many chronic health conditions can be improved by getting an adequate amount of vitamin D throughout the year.

Even if you live in a region that sees minimal sunlight in the winter, there are still great options to add some sunshine back into your life.

And don’t forget, winter can make a great time for a vacation to a tropical destination if all else fails!

Here's how you can take advantage of the benefits of sunlight — and how to get more of it.

Learn how the weather impacts our health and how to change your routines with the seasons!

The Benefits of Sunlight

We all know that sunlight inherently makes us feel better.

But besides just giving us a warm glow, sunshine has a myriad of health benefits that often go overlooked.

UV rays get a bad rap for obvious reasons.

Skin cancer is one major detriment to too much sun exposure.

UV radiation (UVR) is broken down into UVA and UVB rays. UVA radiation (95–97% of the UVR that reaches Earth’s surface) penetrates deep into the skin, where it can contribute to skin cancer indirectly by damaging DNA. UVB radiation is what causes sunburn.

This also leads to direct DNA damage and promotes skin cancers.

In addition, too much UVR can damage collagen, destroy vitamin A in the skin, and accelerate skin aging.

However, studies have found that the benefits of sunlight may actually outweigh the risks when you have an appropriate and safe amount of sun exposure.

Sunlight and Vitamin D

While we have to obtain other vitamins from food, about 80% of required vitamin D in humans is generated by UVB sunlight.

This differs based on skin tone, but in general, for most fair-skinned people, a half-hour in the summer sun can initiate the release of 50,000 IU (1.25 mg) vitamin D into the circulation within 24 hours of exposure.

This same amount of exposure yields 20,000–30,000 IU in tanned individuals and 8,000–10,000 IU in dark-skinned people.

Vitamin D is essential because it promotes calcium and phosphorus absorption, which is a major factor in bone health.

According to the National Institute of Health, individuals from age 1–70 years need about 600 IU of vitamin D per day, and it can come from a combination of food sources and sunlight.

Adults over 70 should aim for at least 800 IU of vitamin D per day.

Bone Health

Without adequate vitamin D intake, bones cannot form properly.

Low vitamin D levels can lead to osteoporosis in both men and women.

In addition, Vitamin D supports numerous metabolic functions, neuromuscular transmission, and immune system enhancement.

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Chronic Diseases Associated with Low Vitamin D Levels

Multiple Sclerosis

There are a number of research studies that have linked low vitamin D levels to diseases.

For example, there is evidence that high levels of vitamin D either from diet or from UVR exposure may decrease the risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS).

It has been found that people that live at higher latitudes have a higher incidence and prevalence of MS.

In one study it was found that living at a latitude above 37° increased the risk of developing MS throughout life by greater than 100%.

Type 1 Diabetes

Research has demonstrated that sufficient vitamin D levels, especially early on in life, are associated with a lower risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

Metabolic Syndrome and Hypertension

There is also a connection with metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and vitamin D deficiency.

For example, low levels of vitamin D are inversely correlated with obesity and stroke.

In addition, inadequate vitamin D levels are associated with increased cardiovascular disease and diabetes along with high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, and insulin resistance.

Certain Cancers

Adequate Vitamin D levels have also been linked to a decreased risk and survival benefit for certain cancers, including breast, colon, ovarian, and prostate cancer.

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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Besides the low levels of Vitamin D that plague many people in the winter, lack of sunlight also leads to depressive symptoms.

This is so prevalent in the winter months it even has its own term-appropriately called SAD (seasonal affective disorder).

Melatonin, a key hormone that regulates circadian rhythm, is produced during the dark hours and stops when we are exposed to sunlight.

When people are exposed to sunlight or very bright artificial light in the morning, nighttime melatonin production occurs sooner.

This leads to more restorative sleep.

In addition, a natural melatonin rhythm helps decrease symptoms related to seasonal affective disorder.

Serotonin (a precursor to melatonin), is also affected by exposure to sunlight.

Serotonin levels are associated with more positive moods and improved mental health.

Since SAD is associated with low serotonin levels during the day, improving these levels with sunlight goes a long way in improving mental wellbeing.

Learn how to treat SAD disorder and feel ALIVE during the winter.

Add Some Sunlight In the Dark Winter

In the winter it can be tough to get active and get enough sunlight, especially in the northern latitudes.

However, there are still ways to enjoy some rays and get a boost of vitamin D to stave off chronic health problems and improve mental health as well.

Lightboxes

Sometimes also called bright light therapy boxes, phototherapy boxes, or (my favorite) happy lamps, these boxes give off artificial sunlight that has many of the same benefits as natural sunshine.

It is much brighter than the lights you normally use in your home.

It's important to know that these boxes are designed more to improve symptoms of SAD.

They do not enhance Vitamin D production since they do not emit UV light.

When choosing a lightbox it is recommended to look for something that provides exposure to 10,000 lux of light and emit as little UV light as possible

To get the most benefit from a lightbox you should use it within the first hour of waking in the morning.

However, this isn’t set in stone, and many people find benefit from using it any time of the day.

You should aim to use it for at least 20-30 minutes and up to a couple of hours a day if desired.

Many women find an improvement in mood, energy, and sleep quality after just 3-5 days of using light therapy.

In one study, light therapy was comparable to medication to treat SAD, and had fewer adverse side effects than medication.

While these light therapy boxes are great for enhancing mood, since UV light is filtered out they won’t increase Vitamin D production by the body.

However, there are lights that do emit UV light that can be used if vitamin D deficiency is an issue.

UV Emitting Lights

As noted above, the typical lightboxes recommended for the treatment of seasonal affective disorder don’t emit UV rays.

This is mainly due to the concern over the increased risk of skin damage and skin cancer from UV exposure.

However, a safe level of UV light can be quite beneficial to enhance vitamin D production.

The Sperti Vitamin D Sunlamp provides UVB rays that the body needs to make vitamin D and has been recognized by the FDA.

These lamps have a timer to control the dose administered and also include UV-blocking glasses to protect the eyes during use.

In addition, the light is filtered to remove unnecessary UVC radiation.

Research has found that the Sperti D/UV-Fluorescent lamp is effective in raising vitamin D levels in healthy adults.

Since prolonged exposure to UV light can cause skin cancer it is always important to discuss the use of these types of lights with your physician before using them on your own.

Increase Vitamin D Intake

Whole Foods

While sunlight is a great source of vitamin D, increasing your dietary intake of this vitamin is just as important.

Foods that are high in vitamin D include:

  • Certain fish, such as salmon, herring, sardines, and canned tuna
  • Cod liver oil
  • Mushrooms
  • Egg yolks
  • Fortified foods, such as cow’s milk, soy milk, cereals

Vitamin D Supplements

Over-the-counter and prescription vitamin D supplements are another way to improve your vitamin D levels if you are unable to get a sufficient amount from your diet or sunlight.

While the recommendations are to have an intake of around 600-800 IU of vitamin D a day, this can vary from individual to individual.

For example, women with diagnosed vitamin D deficiency may need higher levels of intake at first to achieve adequate vitamin D stores.

The best way to determine if you should be taking a vitamin D supplement is to make an appointment with your doctor to check your blood levels and discuss your other health issues.

Since vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, there is a risk of toxicity if you intake too much vitamin D.

Holly Smith

Writer, The Fit Father Project & Fit Mother Project

Holly is an osteopathic physician, runner, triathlete, and fitness and nutrition enthusiast.

She is board certified in nephrology and internal medicine, has a bachelors degree in dietetics and is a certified personal trainer with NASM-PES certification.

Holly has completed four full ironmans, twelve marathons, countless half ironmans, olympic distance triathlons, half marathons and numerous other road races.

Holly joined the Fit Father Project in May 2019 as a regular writer, contributing articles on health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition.

She has also recently qualified for the 2020 World Championships for Ironman 70.3, in New Zealand!

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