It’s summertime, and after a long winter the sun has finally returned. Beaches and pools are open, grilling season has begun, and offices are starting to become suspiciously empty earlier and earlier on Friday afternoons.
Getting too much sun is dangerous, and skin cancer is a very real risk for anyone who spends extended periods of time outside without covering up or wearing sunscreen. But there are some good reasons for you to soak up some rays. It can help your body clock, your mood, and it may even be essential for your health.
Here are 6 reasons why you should spend some time in the sun.
1. Sunlight wakes you up in the morning and makes it easier for you to fall asleep at night.
Even if you aren’t trying to adjust to a new time zone, this is important because exposure to bright natural light via the sun tells your body that it’s daytime, which signals your brain to stop producing melatonin, the hormone that regulates your circadian rhythm. That cue sets your internal clock for the rest of the day, and sets your brain up to start producing melatonin again when you want to go to sleep at night. According to the National Institutes of Health, you’ll sleep better if you get an hour of natural light in the morning.
2. Spending mornings in the sun might also help you keep weight off.
Adults who get sunlight early in the day are likely to have a lower body mass index, a measure that takes into account weight and height, according to a recent study.
The fact that people sleep better if they get light in the morning could account for this, since people who get enough sleep have an easier time managing their weight. But even after controlling for sleep time, the association between a lower BMI and morning light was still significant — meaning that the connection between morning sun and staying slim wasn’t just due to better sleep.
3. The sun helps people fight off winter depression.
One of the most common and effective treatments for the malaise that sets in during long dark winters is more exposure to natural light. Psychiatrists recommend that people spend more time outdoors getting natural light, and in extreme cases, will also prescribe phototherapy, which is exposure to bright light that mimics the sun.
4. The sun keeps your bones healthy.
That’s because your body produces vitamin D when exposed to the sun. The so-called “sunshine vitamin” helps the body absorb calcium, which is essential for bone health. Vitamin D is found in fatty fish like salmon and in fortified dairy products, but it’s also naturally produced when the sun shines on skin, triggering a reaction that makes vitamin D from cholesterol.
5. Some research suggests that the “sunshine vitamin” might protect against breast, prostate, and other cancers, as well as heart disease and other illnesses.
Researchers go back and forth on how essential vitamin D is (or isn’t) for your health. To try and clarify the issue, two big recent studies in the journal BMJ analysed a large body of existing vitamin D research, taking into account studies on more than a million people.
One study found strong connections between low levels of vitamin D and an increased likelihood of dying from heart disease and cancer, though researchers couldn’t say that the low levels caused that increased risk. They also found that the version of the nutrient found in food and produced by the sun was much more essential than the version provided by most supplements.
Other researchers have found that vitamin D might protect against breast and prostate cancer.
6. A shockingly large percentage of the population might be vitamin D deficient.
Despite the back and forth over its importance, every cell in the body has a receptor for the sunshine vitamin, according to Michael Holick, a professor and vitamin D expert at Boston University’s School of Medicine. Holick estimates that up to one-sixth of the human genome is directly or indirectly regulated by the sunlight vitamin.
Yet, according to the Harvard School of Public Health, as many as a billion people worldwide may be vitamin D deficient, especially those that live north of the latitudinal lines connecting San Francisco to Philadelphia or Athens to Beijing. Vitamin D deficiency can cause bones to become brittle or misshapen, and may have other severe health effects too, though many of those are still under investigation.
Some people have trouble producing enough vitamin D naturally, and the American Academy of Dermatology recommends supplements instead of the sun for skin health.
But some studies also show that supplements don’t effectively provide enough vitamin D, and overdoing it with supplements can lead to kidney problems. Your body, meanwhile, won’t naturally overproduce it.
Still, you need only about 15 minutes of sun a day to get adequate vitamin D if you are fair skinned — and more if you have darker skin, since melanin, which makes skin darker, makes it harder for your body to take advantage of the sun’s rays.
If you are covered up or wearing sunscreen for those 15 minutes, you also won’t produce enough vitamin D. People that are older or overweight also have trouble naturally producing enough vitamin D.
Be sure to get some sunshine. But if you’re spending more than a half hour or so in the sun, covering up is probably the safest bet.