Plant-based Lifestyle

How Can I Achieve Optimal Health?

Secret #4 - Sunshine

This continues our series on NEWSTART, the 8 secrets for optimal health. If you haven’t yet read the article on Essentials, you might want to hop over there and read that before continuing with this installment of How to Achieve Optimal health. You can catch that right HERE.

The S in NEWSTART stands for Sunshine. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of sunshine for both physical and mental health. Although there are dangers to overexposure, there are many health benefits to sunshine in proper amounts.  Let’s look at some benefits and then guidelines for appropriate exposure.

Sunshine and Sleep

Light intensity is measured in “lux” or “luxes”. Even bright indoor lighting is often no more than around 400 lux while outdoors on a bright sunny day  you might be exposed to 3,000 lux.This measure of brightness helps to explain some of the impact that sunlight has on our body physiology. One way that it does this is related to your body’s production of a natural hormone called melatonin. Melatonin is very important for restorative and healing functions in the body and is closely tied to sleep quality. Higher levels of melatonin improve sleep quality. Children make the highest levels of melatonin and those levels tend to decrease slowly throughout adult life.

The production of melatonin is carefully controlled in the body. Light entering the eyes works as an on/off switch for the production of melatonin. The pineal gland in the brain works like a clock to regulate this process. Production peaks in darkness during the night. As your body does not store melatonin has to be produced every day to sleep well at night. Exposure to bright light (outdoor sunshine) in the morning has been shown to trigger higher production of melatonin the following night. Once your eye tell your brain that it is dark and nighttime, the brain begins produce melatonin. Production peaks in the early morning hours and then slowly drops over the next 20 hours or so until the following dark period. Interestingly, once production has started, night time exposure to light over 15 lux (equivalent to a dim night light) turns off the production of melatonin for the rest of the night. That is why extended periods of darkness are so important for good quality sleep. If you work the night shift and are forced to sleep during the day or if you live closer to the poles and experience very short periods of darkness during the summer nights, it’s important to do whatever it takes to create a dark, comfortable environment to sleep in and to help regulate your body clock. It might mean using eye covers, or light blocking shades over windows, or nightlights in the hallway or bathroom so you don’t have to turn on overhead lights once you have gone to bed for the night. Attention to these details can really increase your ability to get restful sleep.

Sunshine and Disinfection

Sunshine is a potent tool for killing germs. Exposing blankets, comforters, quilts and other items that are not washed regularly and machine dried to the sunshine can go a long ways to decreasing the spread of disease. Opening the bedroom windows and allowing the sunshine to come in on a daily basis can kill germs on windowsills and in dust and create a health promoting environment indoors as well. Spending time outdoors in the sunshine yourself also kills bacteria on your clothes and skin.

Sunshine and Your Skin

Proper amounts of sunshine can give your skin a healthy glow and make it smooth and pliable. Skin that is lightly tanned is actually somewhat protected against sunburn and more resistant to infections that untanned skin. The action of sunlight on the skin also works to turn cholesterol in the upper skin layers into Vitamin D, an important hormone related to bone health and many other body functions. It is Vitamin D that helps in the transport of calcium from the intestines (your food) to the bones. Adequate levels of Vitamin D help to prevent rickets in children and osteoporosis in adults. It is important, however, to avoid any degree of sunburn. Sunburn damages the skin. Especially in light skinned people this can become a major risk factor for the development of skin cancer. But sunburn is harmful for anyone of any color. When you are sunburned it damages living tissue. Repeated damage and create irreversible damage and can set you up for skin cancer. And if that isn’t bad enough, even very deep tanning gradually destroys the elasticity of the skin and its oil glands, producing wrinkling and premature aging. There are some studies that suggest that a high-fat diet, when combined with sunlight exposure may also promote cancers of the skin.

Sunshine and your mind

Sunshine is a potent mood elevator, producing a sense of well-being. Seasonal variations in light levels are linked to profound changes in mood and mental health. Some people even suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which is a form of depression successfully treated with light therapy. An extra hour of light a day may actually life your spirits and have a positive effect on your energy, sleep, fertility, and even PMS.

Sunlight and general health

Studies show that people who get more sunshine are less likely to develop breast, colon, or prostate cancer. Sunshine also enhances the immune system. It can help the pain caused by swollen and arthritic joints. An extra hour of light a day may actually lift your spirits and have a positive effect on your energy, sleep, fertility, and even PMS symptoms. It also helps to lower blood cholesterol levels. Even NASA uses bright light exposure to help to set astronauts body clocks and help them recover from jetlag and rocket lag.

Sunshine Safety

As mentioned above, a light tan can actually be protective. But you must understand how well you can tolerate sun. If you are very fair or have red hair you might have to start with only 5 minutes of sun exposure a day. People with darker skin might be able to start with 10-15 minutes a day. Realistically, try to get worked up to at least 30 minutes of sunshine a day. Whatever you do, DON’T GET SUNBURNED! Sunburns increase your risk of developing both melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer, and squamous cell carcinoma. Use protective clothing like long sleeve shirts and hats to avoid over exposure to the sun. Be more careful on cloudy days or when to exposed to snow or water where the reflected light is more likely to burn you. Don’t try to get your tan all at once. If you are going on vacation and know you will be in the sun a lot, start your sun exposure before hand to get worked up to longer exposure times.

Just remember that artificial light is a very poor substitute for the real thing. Get outside every day possible and  open up the windows and let the sunshine in!

References

Health by Choice, not by Chance by Drs. Diehl and Ludington

Proof Positive, by Dr. Neil Nedley

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