Do you live for lazy summer days in the sun? If you follow conventional wisdom, you likely slather on sunscreen religiously before stepping foot outdoors. Many Americans wear sunscreen daily, even if their outdoor exposure only happens during their commute to school or work. Parents drown their kids in the stuff before sending them off to school. But is avoiding all sun exposure the best way to keep yourself healthy?
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently suggested that the health benefits of sun exposure may outweigh the risks. Recent medical research indicates sunbathing can reduce cardiovascular disease risks significantly. Also, regular sun exposure carries a host of other health benefits. While skin cancer remains common, you may be able to avoid it while still reducing your risk of other diseases.
Nitric Oxide Released in the Bloodstream Lowers Blood Pressure
For years, experts advised people to limit their sun exposure if they wanted to avoid melanoma. Many people cite vanity concerns as a reason for giving sunbathing a hard pass. Women, in particular, express concern about the aging effects. Women have thinner skin on average when compared to men and show evidence of sun exposure more readily.
However, recent research performed by Dr. Richard Weller discovered that when you expose your skin to sunlight, your blood vessels release a compound called nitric oxide. Nearly every cell in your body produces nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is critical for maintaining blood vessel health.
In patients suffering from high blood pressure, their bodies cannot effectively utilize nitric oxide. Higher nitric oxide levels in your blood lower your blood pressure, decreasing your risk of cardiovascular disease . While nitric oxide supplements exist, your body may use the form of the compound it naturally produces more efficiently. Therefore, greater sun exposure could help those with high blood pressure regulate it naturally.
High blood pressure creates risks beyond cardiovascular disease, although heart problems remain a primary concern. More Americans die each year from cardiovascular disease than from any other cause. This statistic includes both men and women and cuts across ethnic and racial lines .
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, impact cardiovascular health in two primary ways. When blood pumps harder than necessary, the walls of the heart’s pumping chamber thicken . Eventually, these walls grow too thick, leading to heart failure. High blood pressure can cause hardening of the arteries, leading to a heart attack or stroke. Other complications of high blood pressure include metabolic syndrome, diabetes and kidney disease.
Nitric oxide from sun exposure can do more than lower blood pressure. Some evidence suggests higher levels of nitric oxide increases sensitivity to insulin . Patients with type II diabetes become desensitized to insulin, and sun exposure can help these patients control their blood sugar.
Finally, men with erectile dysfunction benefit from additional nitric oxide. It allows the muscles surrounding the penis to relax so it can fill with blood and become erect. Some evidence suggests the increased circulatory capacity in those with higher nitric oxide levels can boost exercise performance and decrease muscle soreness to boot.
Each year, over 600,000 people perish from heart disease. Just over 7,000 people die from melanoma. Comparatively speaking, you’re 85 times more likely to die from cardiovascular factors than skin cancer. And, with careful monitoring, you can catch most cases of skin cancer early, making complete recovery possible.
Vitamin D Supplements Do Not Ensure Adequate Levels
Your body needs adequate levels of vitamin D to process calcium. When you suffer from vitamin D deficiency, you experience back and bone pain and brittle bones prone to fracture. You also may lose hair or develop depression. Your body naturally produces the sunshine vitamin when you expose your skin to the sun.
“But wait,” you might be thinking, “I don’t want to end up as wrinkled as an elephants’ knee simply to get vitamin D! Can’t I take a supplement?” Certainly, supplemental vitamin D exists. However, research indicates taking supplemental vitamin D proves less effective than simply getting outdoors briefly .
The good news? You don’t need to transform yourself into a leather handbag to get sufficient vitamin D. To reap the benefits of sun exposure, all you really need is 10-15 minutes a day, especially if you’re fair-complexed. If you have a darker complexion, aim to get up to 30 minutes of exposure daily.
Health Benefits of Sun Exposure
Many people who avoid the sun do so to reduce their skin cancer risk. But the resulting vitamin D deficiency may increase their risk of developing other forms of cancer. For example, adequate levels of vitamin D decrease your risk of breast and prostate cancer . Appropriate levels also decrease your risk of lung and colorectal cancer.
While skin cancer surgery is minimally invasive if caught early, undergoing a mastectomy for breast cancer proves more invasive — and traumatizing, especially for women. Women lacking health insurance coverage to pay for reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy often develop low self-esteem and depression. This substantially reduces their overall quality of life.
Surgery for lung, prostate or colon cancer carries significant risk. Additionally, skin cancer patients often apply chemotherapy topically, sparing themselves many of the negative health effects of the procedure. Those with internal cancers need intravenous injections of chemotherapy, often in conjunction with radiation, both of which carry significant unpleasant side effects like weight loss and vomiting.
1. Reduce the Risk of Neurological Disease
Several studies indicate that regular sun exposure as a child decreases the risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS) later in life. Those who live at lower latitudes have fewer incidents of the disease and less severe flares. One study indicated that those who increased sun exposure following an initial demyelinating event suffered fewer relapses than those who did not increase their exposure .
Researchers examined the role of vitamin D and found lower levels increases MS risk only in Caucasians. However, white, black and Hispanic individuals all showed lower MS risk with regular sun exposure.
2. Reduce the Pain of Chronic Inflammatory Disease
If your joints ache, lying in the sun can help alleviate the pain. One reason the sun alleviates pain is the heat helps relax muscles and tendons surrounding joints, relieving symptoms of chronic conditions like arthritis.
Additionally, those with chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or Crohn’s disease often suffer lower levels of vitamin D in the blood. Exposure to sunlight boosts levels of this vitamin, easing inflammation and reversing flares.
3. Balance the Endocrine System
The health benefits of sun exposure also extend to our endocrine system. Women with hormonal imbalances often experience unusually painful menstrual periods and difficulty conceiving. When hormones fall out of balance, women suffer increased risks of developing diseases like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis, both of which impact fertility. Hormonal imbalances make it difficult for women to regulate their menstrual cycles and accurately predict the best days of the month to have intercourse for conception.
Researchers have only scratched the surface of how human hormones impact one another. However, scientists know our hormones work in a complementary fashion. Regardless of the exact mechanism, regular sun exposure balances hormones, decreasing period pain and increasing a woman’s chances of conceiving .
4. Help Boost Energy Levels
Both exercise and exposure to sunlight increase levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin plays an important role in overall energy. For example, those suffering from clinical depression have difficulty using serotonin properly. They often suffer from low energy and fatigue as a result .
By boosting serotonin levels through outdoor exercise, you increase your energy levels significantly. Plus, muscles burn more calories than fat, so getting your regular workout groove on — outside whenever weather permits — doubles the calorie burn.
5. Improve Skin Appearance
Many people feel they look better with a tan. Poets through the millennia have lauded their lovers’ sun-kissed glow for good reason. Exposure to sunlight improves the appearance of many common skin conditions such as psoriasis.
Research indicates exposure to the UVB rays of the sun may improve psoriasis symptoms . However, overexposure can cause more severe flares. If you suffer an inflammatory skin condition such as psoriasis, consult with your doctor to find out how much sun exposure daily will benefit you.
6. Elevate Your Mood
You know sun exposure boosts serotonin levels, but did you know it also lowers levels of cortisol, the hormone responsible for the fight-or-flight response ? Elevated cortisol levels over an extended time lead to stress-eating and weight gain.
Getting outdoors busts stress and boosts your mood overall. Research indicates regular exposure to sunlight may work as effectively as antidepressant medications in those with mild-to-moderate manifestations of the disease. Even if you don’t suffer from a mental disorder, getting out in the sun for a little while provides a mood boost, nevertheless.
To boost your productivity at work, try sitting next to the window if possible. If you are a cubicle-dweller, use your break times to take a walk around the block and get some fresh air. You’ll return to your desk feeling positive and refreshed.
Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risks?
Skin cancer remains prevalent but rarely causes death. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes and mental health disorders carry off many victims each year. If you want to safeguard your overall health, heed the advice of the WHO and get outside for a brief time each day. You’ll feel better while decreasing disease risk overall.