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What Are the Medical Benefits of Sunlight?

The sun is a beautiful thing! Without sunlight, we would literally not be alive. Our sleep-wake cycles depend on it, our hormone cycles depend on it, and most of all, our overall health depends on the sun. And can you imagine not having sunrises or sunsets? While there are dozens of benefits of sunlight, we often hear about how too much sunlight can be damaging to our body and that we should always put on sunscreen when out in the sun. Today we want to clarify some of these statements as well as provide insight to the many benefits of the sun and sunlight.

Sunlight triggers your sleep-wake cycles, also known as your circadian rhythm which releases certain hormones in your brain. With morning exposure your body will produce cortisol (the major stress hormone) and at night when the sun goes down your body will produce melatonin (the hormone which makes you sleepy). Exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of a hormone called serotonin(the feel-good hormone) and serotonin is associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel focused and calm.

Without enough sun exposure, your serotonin levels can dip. Just put someone in a dark basement room for a week, and ask them how depressed they are feeling! Low levels of serotonin are associated with a higher risk of major depression with seasonal pattern (also known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD). This is a form of depression triggered by the changing seasons which is often accompanied by shorter days and less sunlight and is very common in our society. The light-induced effects of serotonin are triggered by sunlight that goes in through the eye in which the sunlight triggers specific areas in the retina, which triggers the release of serotonin. Furthermore, according to researchers, those who live in areas with fewer daylight hours are more likely to have some specific cancers than those who live where there’s more sun during the day. These cancers can include Colon cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Ovarian cancer, Pancreatic cancer, and Prostate cancer!

As you can see, light plays a major role in overall health especially mood, and when someone is depressed, this can impact all other areas of health. So one of the treatments within the functional medicine world for depression with this seasonal depressive pattern is light therapy. There are a number of light therapy boxes and tools you can utilize at your home (www.sperti.com) to make sure you are mimicking sunlight.  Sun exposure can also benefit a number of conditions including Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), chronic diseases of the thyroid, gut, and other autoimmune conditions, anxiety related disorders, and pregnant women with depression.

So how Much Sun Do You Need?

Exposure to the ultraviolet-B (UVB) radiation in the sun’s rays causes a person’s skin to create vitamin D. According to one study from 2008, in a 30-minute period while wearing a swimsuit, people will make the following vitamin D levels:

  • 50,000 international units (IUs) in most Caucasian people
  • 20,000 to 30,000 IUs in tanned people
  • 8,000 to 10,000 IUs in dark skinned people

These numbers are ranges and can vary depending on the latitude in which you live, which also varies with the time of year. If you are unable to get adequate sunlight in the winter months and you live in a higher latitude, then supplementing with Vitamin D3 or using a light therapy box is recommended. It’s best to work with your practitioner on monitoring blood levels of vitamin D as they can vary between people for optimal health.

Now we have all been told to always put on sunscreen when out in the sun, but the sun can actually provide many benefits to skin conditions! According to the World Health Organization (WHO), sun exposure might help treat several skin conditions and UV radiation exposure can help to treat: psoriasis, eczema, jaundice, and acne among others. In addition, research studies have revealed preliminary links between sunlight as a potential treatment for several autoimmune diseases including Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), Inflammatory bowel disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.

While there are a lot of good reasons to get sun, the sun emits ultraviolet (UV) radiation and UV radiation can penetrate the skin and damage cell DNA when in excess. This can lead to skin cancer or other deposits. Without having an exact measurement for how long you should stay outside to reap the benefits of sunlight, an easy way to monitor this is by getting what is known as the minimal erythemal dose (MED) which is the amount of UV radiation that will produce minimal erythema (which is sunburn or redness caused by engorgement of capillaries) of an individual’s skin within a few hours following exposure. People with fair skin typically get a sunburn more quickly than those with darker skin. Also, you’re more likely to get a sunburn going outside when the sun’s rays are more direct. This usually takes place between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

According to the World Health Organization, getting anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes of sunlight on your arms, hands, and face 2-3 times a week is enough to enjoy the vitamin D-boosting benefits of the sun. Its important to remember that the sun must penetrate the skin so wearing sunscreen or clothing over your skin won’t result in vitamin D production.

As you can see, from improving your mood to treating autoimmune conditions, sunlight has many benefits. If you live in higher latitudes with little sunlight, a light treatment station may benefit you. You can reach our office for more information on which light therapy boxes we use for our patients.

Dr. Anthony Crifase DC, LDN, CNS, DACBN, CISSN, CPT is a Functional Medicine Consultant that works with clients throughout the United States on getting to the root cause of their health concerns.  Contact The PrivaMD | Center For Functional Medicine at 616.213.0253 if you are interested in learning how Dr. Crifase may be able to assist you on your journey to optimal health

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