You Are My Sunshine!

How important is exposure to the sun for our mental and physical health?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The recent spell of hot weather is a welcome change for many of us across the UK; I live in Cumbria where having consistent sunshine, for more than a few days of the year, is pretty much unheard of – until recently that is. Living in South Lakes also means that we are merely a hop, skip and a jump away from a lake, a river, a tarn or some other picturesque beauty spot perfect for cooling down and enjoying the heat.

Over the last few weeks every evening, weekend and any other opportunity in between has been spent outdoors. Hearing the faint sound of children playing out, later in the evening than usual, is a joyous one and the smell of barbeques in the air has become a regular odour – it feels and smells like holidays! On Saturday my family and I had our breakfast in the garden – warm pain au chocolat, fresh coffee and the warmth of the sun on our faces was pure bliss – “it feels like we’re in France” exclaimed one of my daughters, and it really did.

People seem happier – we feel happier when the sun shines. Gone are the heated discussions about how much time the children are spending on their phones, as they want to be outside playing instead. Eating later in the evening, outdoors has become the norm over this last month or so – something rarely gifted to us here in the North of England. Being able to hang out multiple loads of washing, knowing it will be dry in less than an hour, brings joy to my heart (I know, I’m a saddo right?). We all seem to be smiling more and are less uptight, we are kinder to each other and are eating fresher, healthier foods and even drinking more water…

Can the sun really have such a powerful hold over us?

I am curious as to how much exposure to the sun really does have an impact on our physical and mental health.

A good place to start is to look at Vitamin D – the sunshine nutrient. Not only is it good for the development of healthy bones (in extreme cases Vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets) but it has a profound effect on our mood also. Vitamin D deficiency is a well known contributor to ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ (SAD) – a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons and appears to be more severe during winter time.

Our body creates Vitamin D from direct sunlight, it can also be found in a small number of food sources such as fish and eggs and can be taken as a supplement. According to the NHS; “It’s not known exactly how much time is needed in the sun to make enough vitamin D to meet the body’s requirements. This is because there are a number of factors that can affect how vitamin D is made, such as your skin colour or how much skin you have exposed. But you should be careful not to burn in the sun, so take care to cover up, or protect your skin with sunscreen, before your skin starts to turn red or burn. People with dark skin, such as those of African, African-Caribbean or south Asian origin, will need to spend longer in the sun to produce the same amount of vitamin D as someone with lighter skin.”

Exposure to the sun helps us to produce vitamin D which in turn aids the regulation of our sleeping patterns and reduces the possibility of  low mood.

Getting right the amount of time we exposure our skin to direct sunlight is very important as too much could lead to the development of skin cancer and too little could lead to nutrient deficiency which can have an effect on growth, development and mood stabilisation – serotonin, often known as the ‘happy hormone’, is a brain chemical that is released in response to sunlight.

Vitamin D also helps to regulate circadian rhythms, described by the National Sleep Foundation as “A 24-hour internal clock that is running in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. It’s also known as your sleep/wake cycle.”

Sleeping at regular times is associated with better health and mood. Individuals who work shift patterns often have disrupted circadian rhythms and are more prone to ill health, low mood, depression and even obesity.

The ‘Vitamin D Council’ refer to research from 2014; “Research from Journal of Biological Rhythms discovered that calcitriol, the activated form of vitamin D, modulated the expression of and synchronized two genes involved in the circadian rhythm in stem cells derived from fat tissue.”

In other words – these changes/effects play an important role in the maintenance of circadian rhythms, which in turn help to regulate and stabilise our mood and have a positive effect on our general health.

So I’m not imagining it then – exposure to the sun helps us to produce vitamin D which aids the regulation of our sleeping patterns and reduces the possibility of  low mood.

Environmental and social factors are also an important part of our response to exposure to the sun. Enjoying the heat tends to promote healthier attitudes to food and exercise. Who wants pie, peas and gravy on a scorching day? No thanks – fresh fruits, salad, smoothies and juices are the order of the day when the rays are belting down. Simply being outside means we are less sedentary also – weekend walks, cycling, swimming – be it out in the open or in your local pool – and many other activities are often better enjoyed when the sun has got his hat on. We are also more likely to socialise when it’s sunny – an impromptu invitation to a friend or neighbours BBQ is not unheard of in the summer months AND the wonderful sun promotes energy and vitality – Psychology Professor Richard Ryan states that “Research has shown that people with a greater sense of vitality don’t just have more energy for things they want to do, they are also more resilient to physical illnesses. One of the pathways to health may be to spend more time in natural settings.”

Our relationship with the sun truly is a thing of beauty. Safe exposure (don’t forget that sunscreen!) encourages happiness, health, friendship and vitality – what could be better than that. The poem ‘It felt Love’ by Hafiz speaks volumes about the power of that beautiful ball of fire in the sky:

How
Did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to this world
All its
Beauty?
It felt the encouragement of light
Against its
Being, 
Otherwise, 
We all remain
Too
Frightened.

Cx

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