Over the last few decades, sun-o-phobia has become our national norm. Thanks to non-stop, dire warnings put out by mainstream medicine declaring all sun exposure BAD, we’ve been scared into thinking the sun is a death star waiting to zap us every time we step outside. Granted, sunbathing irresponsibly for hours on end and burning is unquestionably harmful and potentially lethal. But ‘taking a bit of sun’ for brief periods – we’re talking minutes, not hours – and allowing the sun to hit your skin unprotected is essential to good health. Enjoying a ‘sunbreak,’ and not a sun-bake, confers a host of benefits that you shouldn’t miss out on, particularly once winter starts to take hold. What’s all that sun doing for your bod? Here are a few of the good things that happen when you let the sun shine in – and tips on how to do it strategically and sensibly, of course:
Disease-fighting vitamin D levels get a lift
Exposing your skin to the sun (without sunscreen) triggers a reaction in the body that boosts production of vitamin D. Unlike other essential vitamins that are found in food, Vitamin D is synthesized in the skin, with strategic sun exposure that is, enabling the body to build bones, tame inflammation and boost immunity. Vitamin D is also thought to play a key role in preventing a number of cancers, including pancreatic, lung, breast, ovarian, skin, prostate and colon. In winter, when light is in short supply and we’re less likely to spend time outdoors, sunbreaks can help keep your body’s vitamin D factory from completely shutting down. (The winter months are also a good time to take a vitamin D3 supplement as well.)
Mood elevates, despite winter’s darkness
Ever notice how time spent at the beach leaves you feeling relaxed and blissed-out for hours afterwards? While the calming waves and sand between your toes certainly helps lift spirits, the sun is chemically altering your mood. You can replicate some of that bliss with regular sunbreaks — studies have shown that vitamin D has an anti-depressant effect. And the light exposure lifts moods via other brain pathways even if in the winter the vitamin D boost is modest.
Drift off, drug-free
Another way to think about the short, regular sunbreak? Call it nature’s Ambien, with a side of circadian rhythm. This winter, in the morning or as early as you can, head out into the sunshine for a few minutes, sans sunglasses. This allows the daylight coming in through your eyes to signal to the brain’s pineal gland that nighttime is over, and it’s time to switch off production of melatonin, the nighttime drowsiness hormone. Using the sun this way – a strategic sleep-and-wake partner – you’ll help your body maintain a healthy and normal circadian rhythm all winter long.
Put blood pressure in its place
We’re not saying you can toss your blood pressure meds if you’re on ‘em but some winter sun exposure can help bring the numbers to a better place. This positive effect was discovered not long ago by researchers at the University of Edinburgh who found a drop in blood pressure after just two brief sun sessions. Turns out, sunshine triggers the release of nitric oxide, a compound that opens the blood vessels, enabling better blood flow. So one more reason to head outside this winter.
The Prescription: Let the sunshine in – smartly and responsibly
Your age, BMI, complexion, location, season, time of day – all factor in as to how much sun exposure is appropriate for you. The further south you live, the less sun exposure you’ll need to boost vitamin D, but a New Yorker at high noon in February needs some extra minutes. For a personalized winter-time prescription, take a look at the D Minder app which tracks the amount of Vitamin D you’ll get with the sun’s help, based on all of the aforementioned factors, so you get out of the rays before you get too pink.
Drink in winter sun with care
When you participate in winter sports, you can burn shockingly fast from reflected light so, by all means, be conscious, careful and cover up. As added protection, also do the following throughout the winter season:
– Wear – sunscreen, the healthiest possible, using Environmental Working Group’s list of safer sunscreens as your guide.
– Optimize – vitamin D levels – eat a diet loaded with antioxidant-rich greens.
– Take – a vitamin D3 supplement
– Monitor – sun exposure closely with an app or pick up a SunFriend device to keep you honest.
Bottom line: Sunburns, be they in summer or winter, are closely linked to skin cancer and melanoma. Moderate, regular, brief sun exposure, however, is not. So handle the sun year-round with care to embrace its benefits and minimize its risks. Now get out there!