Many people fear sunlight. I know someone who always avoided going outside during the day, and when she did, she covered every inch of skin with sunscreen, long clothing, sunglasses and a hat. One day she started noticing herself feeling more tired and run-down than usual. After being encouraged to get a health check, she was surprised to learn she had a vitamin D deficiency. She started supplementing vitamin D, but it didn’t significantly improve. Even with encouragement from her doctor to spend some time outside to boost her vitamin D levels, she was hesitant because she had been taught to fear the sun.
Sunlight is something that was created for us to enjoy. It has many benefits and is essential for life on earth. But as we all know, it comes with risks. Let’s explore the many benefits of sunlight, as well as how we can safely build sun tolerance and enjoy the light without putting ourselves in danger.
First and foremost, sunlight is crucial to produce vitamin D. When UVB rays from the sun penetrate the skin, they stimulate the production of vitamin D3. This is essential for bone health, immune function and the prevention of chronic diseases such as osteoporosis and cancer. According to the Vitamin D Council, “Getting enough vitamin D from sunlight can reduce the risk of dying from cancer, autoimmune diseases, and cardiovascular disease.”
Completely avoiding the sun, or even overuse of sunscreen can cause you to become deficient in vitamin D. The Australasian College of Dermatologists recommends, “if you are protecting yourself very well because of past history of skin cancer or melanoma, you should talk to your doctor about vitamin D deficiency”. Some studies have even suggested sun avoidance may increase the risk of certain types of cancer, such as breast, prostate and colon cancer.1
In addition to vitamin D production, sunlight has many other health benefits. For example, exposure to natural light has been shown to improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression.2 This is because sunlight triggers the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and reduces the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes us sleepy.
Sunlight exposure can also help regulate circadian rhythms—the 24-hour cycles that govern our sleep-wake cycle, hormone production and other physiological processes. Exposure to natural light at sunrise and sunset helps reset the internal clock that regulates circadian rhythms, making it easier to fall asleep and wake up at the appropriate times. God makes it easy for us to be outside at sunrise and sunset by painting a beautiful, unique skyscape every day.
Benefits on the brain
The benefits of sunlight aren’t just limited to physical health. Sunlight is also essential for mental health and cognitive function. Research has shown that natural light can improve productivity, creativity and learning.3 This is because exposure to sunlight helps regulate the body’s production of cortisol, a hormone that plays a crucial role in regulating stress and cognition.
Some studies have suggested that sunlight exposure may be particularly beneficial for children’s learning and development. One study found that students in classrooms with more natural light had higher academic achievement than those with less natural light. Another study found that exposure to natural light in the morning improved the sleep quality and cognitive performance of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Un-learning bad impulses
So, why are people hesitant to embrace sunlight? Part of the reason is that we’ve become increasingly sedentary and indoor-focused as a society. Many of us spend most of our days indoors, whether at work or at home and we’ve become disconnected from the natural world. This can lead to various negative health outcomes, including depression, anxiety and obesity. But we can improve our physical and mental health by embracing sunlight and spending more time outside.
Another reason people may demonise sunlight is that UV radiation can be harmful if we’re not careful and overexposure can lead to sunburn and other skin damage. Building sun tolerance is a way to gradually increase our ability to tolerate sunlight, reducing the risk of sun damage while still enjoying the benefits of sun exposure.
How to build sun tolerance
- Start slowly. If you have fair skin or are prone to sunburn, it’s important to start slowly when building sun tolerance. Begin by spending a short time in the sun each day, gradually increasing your exposure time over several weeks.
- Choose the right time. Sun exposure is most intense during the middle of the day, so it’s best to avoid being outside during this time when you’re starting to build sun tolerance. Early morning or late afternoon is a good time to build sun tolerance initially, as the sun is less intense. The UV index can be a useful tool for you to adjust your activities accordingly.
- Use the D-Minder app. This tool helps you optimise your vitamin D levels by tracking your sun exposure and recommending safe sun exposure times. Based on the app’s recommendations, you can gradually increase your sun exposure over several weeks.
- Eat a healthy diet. A diet rich in antioxidants can help protect the skin from sun damage. Foods high in vitamins C, E and beta-carotene can help boost the skin’s ability to withstand sunlight.
- Stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of water can help keep the skin hydrated, reducing the risk of sun damage. Drinking water before, during and after sun exposure is important to prevent dehydration.
- Be aware of medication. Certain medications can increase the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight, including some antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and birth control pills. If you’re taking medication, speak to your doctor about whether you need to take extra precautions when spending time in the sun.
- Check your skin regularly. Even if you’re building sun tolerance, it’s important to check your skin regularly for any signs of damage. Look for redness, changes in moles or other skin lesions and see a dermatologist if you notice any changes.
In the Bible, the creation of the sun is described in the first chapter of Genesis. On the fourth day, God creates the sun, along with the moon and the stars: “God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:17,18). It seems like we’ve forgotten that God said, “It was good.” It reminds us of God’s love and care for all creation and His power to sustain us.
I’m not saying too much sun exposure isn’t harmful or doesn’t create skin damage. What I’m saying is that maybe we’ve unfairly demonised it. The sun isn’t our enemy. It can offer us many life-giving benefits . . . if we let it. So, instead of avoiding the sun entirely, let’s mindfully embrace the light and the benefits it has to offer.
Sisi Toro is a Hawaiian-based health educator and speaker who promotes a plant-based life. She enjoys creating recipes, hiking mountains and going to the beach.
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4571149/; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23237739/; https://www.ejcancer.com/article/S0959-8049(13)00119-6/fulltext
- sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165032721008612; ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5947163/
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4877070/; https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/can-sunshine-help-your-brain; ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/ articles/PMC3487856/; pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3666056/; ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2728098/