An Ode to the Sun: safe exposure and benefits
Modern society has been largely disconnected from the sun. We’ve developed a sun phobia and as a result, most people aren’t receiving the benefits from the sun that are needed for sustainable health. We often hear about the risks of sun exposure, but it’s time that conversation was flipped. Looking at sun through a holistic lens can help us to gain the benefits in a safe manner.
Long ago, sun bathing was considered medicine. In several cultures spanning throughout history from Asia to ancient Rome, spending time in the sun was considered a non-negotiable preventative health measure. It was even used to cure several diseases. In function medicine the spectrum of light is still used in disease treatment!
The use of sun as medicine was so prominent that sun therapy had two formal titles: heliotherapy and chromotherapy. Connecting back to the sun in a safe and controlled manner is a free boost to our biology that can yield profound effects. We all know that feeling of feeling the warmth of sun on our skin, the relaxation that floods us when we lay out on a nice summer day. The feel good effects of the sun are intuitive. Let’s get back to them!
Benefits of Sunbathing
Natural light is beneficial to our health on many different levels. Optimal human physiology is dependent on adequate sun exposure. When it comes to the benefits to the sun on human health there are several:
Promotes Restful Sleep
Sun regulates our circadian rhythm by controlling melatonin production. When our eyes are exposed to sunlight in the morning, it ‘dissolves’ any remaining melatonin allowing us to fully wake up. Exposure in the morning also promotes adequate release of melatonin at night. This allows us to feel tired and is what enables us to effortlessly drift off into a peaceful slumber.
Sun exposure increases the happiness hormone serotonin. Research shows that those who have less sun exposure are at a higher risk for mood disorders such as depression than their sun-loving counterparts. We can see this at play with the downward trend in mood during the winter months, known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is in part due to a reduction in serotonin production as a consequence of less sunlight exposure.
Makes Vitamin D
Vitamin D is critical for bone health and immunity. Without enough vitamin D, calcium can’t get into bones or teeth and risk for osteopenia, osteoporosis and fractures increases substantially. Our immune cells also require vitamin D to properly develop. Vitamin D also codes for proteins that fight incoming pathogens such as viruses and bacteria. Low sun exposure and vitamin D status predispose us to infections.
Improves Circulation and Blood Pressure
When sunlight is absorbed into the skin, it prompts the synthesis of a compound called nitric oxide. Nitric oxide dilates blood vessels to help improve circulation and can have a favourable effect on blood pressure. Research shows direct exposure in the morning maximized this more than at other times during the day.
Too Much Sun, Sun Burns and Sunscreen
We’re all familiar with the risks of too much sun exposure which include increased risk for skin cancer, premature wrinkles, sun spots and of course sunburn. While exposing our skin to the sun is an essential piece of the health puzzle, mindful practice is paramount.
Sunscreen might not be the best option when it comes to practicing sun safety. Conventional sunscreen is filled with endocrine disrupting chemicals that get absorbed into the skin and bind to our hormone receptors. This elicits a cascade of negative effects including driving hormone imbalances.
Aside from the concerning ingredients listed on most sunscreens, sunscreen blocks the UV rays from being absorbed into the skin, which is where all the benefits come from.
Safe Sun Exposure
UV rays are not inherently harmful. They become harmful when someone is exposed over their threshold and an inflammatory, immune response is initiated. Low antioxidant status and cell membrane rigidity are linked to low sun tolerance.
Here are 4 tips to maximize benefits and reduce adverse effects:
1. Build sun tolerance. Start outside for 5 minutes and slowly work up to 20 minutes over the course of a few weeks.
2. Morning sun is the best and safest sun for full body exposure. Avoiding the strong afternoon sun is the best sunburn prevention or utilizing hats, umbrellas and clothes that cover the body if outside in the peak hours.
3. If you will be out in the heat of the day, opt for a natural sunscreen which has less of those endocrine disrupting chemicals. Look for zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
4. Antioxidants can offer internal protection from UV rays. While antioxidants shouldn’t replace sunscreen- they can increase resilience to the sun.
When it comes to antioxidants, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables which also contain polyphenols is the foundation from which to build. Using targeted antioxidants such as astaxanthin and vitamin C can offer a therapeutic edge.
Astaxanthin is a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant molecule that has been honoured for its sun protective properties.
It is able to reach both the dermis and the epidermis, both which are layers of the skin that can be negatively impacted by the sun. It is able to neutralize singlet oxygen, which is the most prominent oxidant generated by UV rays. It can reduce inflammatory markers associated with the onset and severity of sunburns.
Astaxanthin can help in the short term to offer an extra layer of protection when it comes to the sun. It's also been shown in the long-term to reduce photoaging and moisture loss that is associated with sun exposure and halt the loss of glutathione in the skin.
Vitamin C offers photoprotection to those exposed to high levels of UV rays coming from the sun. The highest concentration of vitamin C is in the skin and it's able to quench free radicals and inflammation.
When a sunburn occurs there is a risk of DNA damage, vitamin C is DNA protective and helps to keep levels of glutathione high which also offers DNA protection.
Research shows that those with equal amounts of lifelong sun exposure show less signs of aging when vitamin C supplements are in the picture.
As a bonus, Lypo-Spheric® Vitamin C is wrapped in phospholipids which help keep cell membranes fluid- a characteristic of a sun resiliency!
To leverage the most benefits of dynamic sunlight, we recommend getting out in the sun when you first wake up. The more skin exposed, the better. Incorporate it into your morning ritual and notice how much energy you have throughout the day- you might even see random symptoms clear up. Always be sunsmart and be mindful of exposure- add a vitamin C and Astaxanthin supplement for extra insurance!
Author: Lisa Kowalyk, CNP, B.Kin