10 Surprising Benefits and Dangers of Sunlight

woman outside in the sun

It’s no secret that sunlight is beneficial to us, but we’ve also learned that it can cause harm. Like most things in life, the sun has both positive and negative qualities, especially where our health is concerned. Here are some of the benefits and dangers of sunlight and sun exposure.

Benefit: Mood Booster

We’ve all been there. You’re at work or at school, having an awful day. It seems like everything you touch turns into a disaster and everyone is working against you. But at lunchtime, you head out to grab a bite to eat and find that it’s a glorious day. By the time you make it to your favorite sandwich shop, you have a spring in your step and a smile on your face. You’re not imagining things. Sunlight is actually one of the best natural mood boosters we know.

The science behind this one is really pretty amazing. It seems that exposure to sunlight releases a chemical in our brains called serotonin. This feel-good chemical helps relieve depression, reduce anxiety and even stimulates the body to heal wounds. It makes us feel happier and calmer, and more in control. Not having enough of it can lead to depression, including Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). So the next time you’re feeling stressed, take a stroll in the sunlight and reap the benefits of serotonin.

Benefit: Sleep Aid

It seems counterintuitive, but the sun actually helps us sleep. Just as serotonin is beneficial as a mood booster, it’s also vital as one half of the combination that tells our bodies when to sleep. Our bodies and minds are designed to work on a cycle called the circadian rhythm. Historically this was entirely defined by the presence or absence of sunlight. With today’s electric lights and blue screens, we’ve gotten away from these natural sleep cues, and for many insomnia is the inevitable result. 

We’ve discussed that the sun releases serotonin into the body, giving us energy and helping us feel happy and at ease. But the story, and the benefits, don’t end there. In the darkness after the sun goes down, our body converts serotonin to create melatonin, the sleep hormone. Unfortunately, many of our screens and bright lights mimic sunlight and confuse our bodies into thinking that it’s still daylight. 

To make the most of the sun’s sleep perfecting benefits, be sure to turn off screens and dim the lights before bed. Then, get plenty of sun exposure first thing in the morning to help yourself wake up fully. After a few days of this, you’ll find you sleep more soundly and awake rested and refreshed.

Benefit: Natural Disinfectant

With the global pandemic, there has been a lot of focus lately on disinfectants. But there’s one you may be overlooking in your quest to rid yourself of germs: sunlight. While chemical disinfectants are certainly quicker, the sun’s UV rays can be a wonderful option. In fact, in some third world countries, sunlight is used as a method for decontaminating water from microbiological pathogens. 

So how do we take advantage of this benefit? For surfaces that aren’t easily wiped down, setting them in a sunny part of the yard or driveway for the day will kill off the majority of bacteria. So the next time you need to disinfect a rug, mattress, or something else that’s too big to throw in the washing machine, take advantage of this easy, free method. And remember to open the curtains at home during the day. Sunlight streaming in through windows can help kill bacteria in the air that would otherwise multiply in a cool, dark environment like an airconditioned room.

Benefit: Sunlight Vitamins

When we spend time in the sun, our skin manufactures Vitamin D. But what does that do, exactly? The primary use of this vitamin in the body is to regulate calcium. This is important for strong bones and teeth. But vitamin D can also help fight off diseases like the flu and may even help with weight loss.   

Fortunately, this is a really easy vitamin to acquire. Just 15 minutes of sunlight exposure a day is enough to give you all the vitamin D you need. So go outside and take a walk while the weather is nice. You can also get vitamin D through foods like salmon and egg yolks, and some foods are fortified with vitamin D such as milk and orange juice. Supplements are also available, though you should be aware that too much D can be just as bad as not enough.

Benefit: Cancer Prevention

Yes, that’s right. Sunlight has been shown to help prevent some cancers. A study published in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention found that sunlight exposure is likely beneficial in preventing certain cancers including “colorectal, prostate, breast carcinoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma”. While this preventative effect was long associated with the benefits of vitamin D, current research suggests that sunlight’s benefits in cancer prevention go far beyond its effects on vitamin D levels. 

Danger: Heat Exhaustion & Heat Stroke

Two of the most common dangers associated with sun exposure are heat exhaustion and heat stroke. These heat-related illnesses may occur when the body’s temperature is raised because of time spent in the sun. While many people may associate the two with one another, they’re actually two different conditions and should be treated differently.

Symptoms of heat stroke include a high body temperature (over 103°F), hot and red skin, nausea, dizziness, headaches, confusion, a fast pulse and finally passing out. Heat stroke is a medical emergency and should immediately be treated by qualified medical personnel. While waiting for medical assistance, do your best to lower the sufferer’s body temperature by moving them to a cooler place and draping them with cool wet cloths. 

On the other hand, heat exhaustion symptoms include sweating, cool or clammy skin, a fast pulse, weakness or dizziness, headaches, muscle cramps, vomiting, and finally passing out. If someone experiences heat exhaustion but not heat stroke, move them to a cooler area and give them water to sip. Cool wet cloths or a cool bath can also be helpful. If the sufferer is throwing up or symptoms last an hour or more, it’s important to seek medical help right away. 

If you’re suffering from heat exhaustion, give DispatchHealth a call. We’ll come to you and treat your symptoms to get you back to health without the need to visit an ER or clinic.

Danger: Skin Cancer

Of course, while we’re now learning that sunlight may help prevent some cancers, there’s another cancer that in unquestionably linked to sun exposure: skin cancer or melanoma. We’ve all seen the warnings, and you likely know that it’s important to protect your skin if you’re going to be out in the sun for a lengthy period of time. To avoid this danger, use a sunscreen with a high SPF or cover up your skin with clothing and a wide-brimmed hat. 

Danger: Sunburn

Beyond cancer, another reason to protect your skin from the damaging rays of the sun is sunburn. We’ve all likely experienced this at one time or another, and while people with darker skin are better protected against this danger, they can still burn given sufficient exposure. So be sure to invest in a good quality sunscreen this summer, and reapply often if you’re spending the day in the sun.

Danger: Premature Aging

For those with lighter skin tones, the sun can also cause visible signs of aging. Too much sun exposure leads to wrinkles, a loss in firmness and age spots or other discoloration. So before you book some time in a tanning bed or spend the day laying out in the sun, remember that that golden tan you’re seeking can do more harm than you may anticipate.

Danger: Heat Rash

This one may seem more like an annoyance than a true danger, but heat rash is a real problem for people around the world. When your pores get blocked and trap sweat under your skin, heat rash is the result. This is most commonly seen in babies but can affect all ages as well. Symptoms include red blisters, itching or a prickly feeling. While heat rash usually clears up on its own, seek medical help if your heat rash lasts longer than a few days or if you notice any signs of infection.

Danger: Eye Problems

Just as our skin can suffer from the effects of the sun’s rays, so too can our eyes. UV radiation can cause inflammation of the cornea or the conjunctiva in the short term. In the long term, it can lead to cataracts, macular degeneration, and cancers in the eye. 

How do we protect our eyes from this damage? Never stare directly at the sun, and be sure to wear UV-protective lenses if you’re going to be in the sun for an extended period. Also, be sure never to look at a solar eclipse without protection as this can cause far greater damage in a far shorter period of time.

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