“Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.”
— Paul Williams
On last week’s “Wellness Wednesday,” we were talking about happiness as it relates to wellness and I mentioned the contribution sunshine makes to our mental health. As a South Florida native, I have always enjoyed the life benefits of sunshine (including a killer tan), but I have found that many people, including some of my neighbors, don’t recognize the amazing benefits it offers.
So, this week, I want to dig a little deeper into the science of sunshine. Why is it so important? Are the folks in San Diego really happier and healthier than folks in Seattle? What can sunshine do for us? What do the trees know that we have forgotten?
A Little History
Whether you believe in the Garden of Eden or cavemen, it’s hard to argue with the fact that people used to live most of their lives outdoors. Shelter was for sleeping and storing your goods. Humans were primarily farmers or conducted business in the open markets until the Industrial Revolution, when me moved into factories, and then offices.
If you were to ask me to list the technological advancements that have changed society the most, the first one on my list might just be the air conditioner. Think about it: before air conditioners, we kept cool on the front porch in the evenings. We kept our windows open. We interacted with our neighbors more. We played out in the yard and worked in the garden (or the field). The notion of spending all our work time and free time indoors is unique to the last fifty years.
As a result, we spend more time sick.
Consider this: the north side of my house gets almost no sun at all, and that is where I spend the most time pressure washing mold, mildew, and other bacteria.
Then consider this: even though our ancestors spent their whole lives outside, we have no record of skin cancer being a problem until the 1950s (about the time chemical sunscreens became popular…but that’s a topic for another article).
As a culture, we spend too much time indoors, in enclosed spaces with mold and bacteria of every kind. We have a whole subculture of people who work at night and sleep during the day, to maintain our 24-hour operations. When we get home from our indoor jobs, we spend the rest of the night in our air conditioned houses, sitting in front of the TV. Then, we deal with so much depression that we have different names for the specific varieties of it. Coincidence?
Do you know what is interesting to me? Up north, the flu spreads during the winter, when people are stuck indoors for days and weeks at a time (the time from Halloween to Easter is also when our sugar intake is at its highest – food for thought). Down in South Florida, the flu passes around in the summer, when people move from oppressive heat outside to cold, damp concrete houses with the air conditioner blasting. Every grocery store in town keeps their air conditioning in the high 60’s and it makes me crazy. When you’ve just been outside in a car in the 90’s, that’s a shock to your system. It’s almost painful. The humidity condenses when it hits that cold air and interiors get damp and musty. No wonder Floridians get sick in the summer.
What’s In It For Me?
So, since indoor living is relatively new to the human experience, and we were created to live out of doors, let’s take a look at what’s waiting for us outside, in the warm glow of the sun.
Plants have an amazing process of receiving their nutrients from sunlight, called “photosynthesis.” You may remember this from 7th grade science class. Chlorophyl is the chemical that makes this process happen, and it’s why most plants are green. We don’t have that, but we do receive nutrients from sunlight. Vitamin D is one of the most important nutrients our bodies use, in that it does the following:
- supports our immune system
- aids calcium absorption for our bones
- manages inflammation
- balances glucose and insulin
- strengthens your cardiovascular system
- may be a key to fighting off cancer
Vitamin D from sunlight is the most bioavailable, meaning it is the easiest form for your body to absorb and use, so it is highly efficient. There are some pill and powder forms of Vitamin D that are relatively good, but the stuff that comes directly from the sun is the best. One other note about Vitamin D: what you don’t use, you lose. Your body cycles out unused Vitamin D while you sleep, so you need a fresh batch every day. Good thing the sun rises every morning.
Circadian Rhythm Support
Have you ever known someone who wakes up when the sun rises, and can’t go back to sleep until it goes down? Serotonin (there’s that word again) responds to sunlight, much the same way the tides follow the course of the moon. When the sun comes up, serotonin knows it’s time to get moving, and when it goes down, that same neurotransmitter understands that you’re supposed to be sleeping. This is complicated by the advent of electric lights and 24-hour services. With all that light pouring in, our bodies have a hard time knowing what to do. The city that never sleeps? They should shut off the lights.
Here’s a tip to improve your sleep: hang blackout curtains in your windows at night, and shut off all electronic devices an hour before you want to go to sleep.
Are you typically cheerful on sunny days and gloomy on rainy days? Again, you can thank serotonin for that. For most of us, sunlight tends to trigger positive feelings and fights off depression. It’s not a coincidence that rain and clouds are usually associated with depression, and sunshine is associated with joy. A 2007 European study suggested that trace amounts of lithium in sunlight might be a contributing factor, which is interesting, but I haven’t seen enough about it to be sure. I’ve also heard that medical doctors and psychologists who diagnose depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder in their patients sometimes prescribe direct sunshine as part of their treatment.
One of the big selling points of sunscreen is that it will protect your skin from melanoma, a form of cancer of the skin. But here’s the shocking truth: the proper amount of sunlight is also a good way to PREVENT cancer, psoriasis, eczema and acne. For a more in-depth study of the pros and cons of sunscreen, I’ll direct you here, but my point here is that the right amount of sunlight will do your skin more GOOD than harm, and will certainly be better for you than most of the chemical concoctions that are on the market.
Tip: look for coconut oil and/or green tea when you are researching sunscreen.
That same serotonin that manages your sleep patterns also manages your appetite. You’re likely to eat less on sunny days when the serotonin is riding high (especially if you tend to “comfort eat” on cloudy days), and you’re more likely to go outside and engage in more physical activity.
So Much More
There’s more to be said about sunshine, but I’d much rather see you go out and enjoy some of it. If it’s sunny where you are (and your workplace allows it), put on a short-sleeved or sleeveless shirt and spend your lunch break outside. You’ll not only get a nice tan, your body will thank you for the extra benefits.
If you know someone who could benefit from a little extra sunlight today, be sure to share this on Facebook. And let us hear from you in the comments if you’ve seen improvements in your health or mood from increasing your exposure to sunlight.
I’ll look forward to seeing you here tomorrow for “Think Right Thursday.”
“At the end of your feelings is NOTHING. At the end of your principles is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas