Medical researchers are finally beginning to recognize the benefits of a health “secret” that natural health practitioners have recommended for thousands of years. It even precedes the era of the Greek physician Hippocrates, often called the first doctor.
This “secret” – it’s called “sunshine” – is easily available and free of charge. You probably know it stimulates your body to make massive amount of vitamin D. But recent studies show it does far more. It may cause you to lose weight, help you sleep better, and produce a bunch of other benefits.
But oh, those scientists! You’ve got to watch out for them. Their bad advice to avoid going out in the sun might explain some of the widespread illnesses that plague millions of people.
Hopefully they’re right about these new benefits, and we can all safely get out in the sun and take advantage of them.
Shrink Your Fat
One of the more remarkable studies shows that sunlight can shrink the fat cells that sit just beneath the surface of your skin.1
“When the sun’s blue light wavelengths – the light we can see with our eye – penetrate our skin and reach the fat cells just beneath, lipid droplets reduce in size and are released out of the cell. In other words, our cells don’t store as much fat,” says Prof. Peter Light, who is the Director of the University of Alberta’s Diabetes Institute in Canada.
And not getting sunlight may partly explain why most Americans and Canadians are overweight. “If you flip our findings around,” according to Prof. Light, “the insufficient sunlight exposure we get eight months of the year living in a northern climate may be promoting fat storage and contribute to the typical weight gain some of us have over winter.”
Not to mention the fact that so many of us never get outside in the sun very much.
In their research, the Canadian scientists didn’t originally set out to see what effect sunlight had on fat tissue. They were trying to bioengineer fat cells that would manufacture insulin in response to light in order to aid people who had Type 1 diabetes and whose pancreases didn’t produce insulin. Type 1 diabetes generally affects young people and is genetic, at least in part.
But during their studies, which first focused on an analysis of cellular activity in the eye stimulated by blue wavelengths from sunlight, the researchers found that fat cells just below the skin’s surface also responded.
How Much Sun is Good For You?
Now, they don’t recommend that anyone rely totally on sunlight to lose weight. But it can’t hurt to get out in the sun more – just don’t overdo it and get sunburned. Guidelines for safe sun exposure are actually kind of complicated – it depends on the time of year, the time of day you go out, and how close you are to the equator.
The sun varies in intensity for all these reasons. And your skin type is a big factor, too. You can stay out a lot longer in spring or fall than in July, and a lot longer in Canada than in Jamaica. The bottom line is, you can reap most of the benefit with a short exposure. At noon in July, 15 minutes is probably the max. In September you might be able to stay out twice or three times as long. And in July, 25 or 30 minutes at 4 PM might be just fine.
The point is: Don’t burn. Don’t get even a little pink. Aim for a little bit of sun every day or every other day.
A “Cure” For Bipolar Disorder?
Another interesting finding about the health power of light shows that people suffering from bipolar depression can be helped by being exposed to bright light at mid-day.
Other studies have shown that people who are depressed because of what’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) are helped by bright light first thing in the morning. So if you suffer from winter depression, you can get relief by taking a morning walk. However, when folks with bipolar issues use morning light, they often find it sets off mania and other emotional turmoil.
But a study at Northwestern shows that exposure to light later on in the day, between noon and 2:30 PM, can help two out three folks with bipolar depression recover a stable mood. And that’s without the side effects that morning light often produces.2
“Effective treatments for bipolar depression are very limited,” says researcher Dorothy Sit, who is with the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “This gives us a new treatment option for bipolar patients that we know gets us a robust response within four to six weeks.”
Greater Endurance For Athletes – And More
Other findings about the effects of light include:
- Tests at the University of Basel show that if you are taking part in a nighttime sporting event, a blast of blue light right before the competition will give you more endurance throughout the match.3
- A study at Harvard shows that pre-menopausal women who live in a neighborhood that has a great deal of outdoor lighting at night may be at an increased risk of breast cancer.4 At night, we’re supposed to be in the dark. Exposure to light messes up our circadian rhythms.
- Research at the University of Gothenburg indicates that patients in a hospital’s ICU unit do better if the lighting levels in the ward are synchronized with the changing amount of light and darkness outside. And the benefits occur even for patients who are unconscious.5
- A study at the University of Colorado-Boulder shows that getting more sun during the day can help you get to sleep more easily and get to bed earlier.6
Unfortunately, the advice you get from many conventional doctors, particularly dermatologists, is to stay out of the sun and always slather on sunscreen when you do venture outdoors. If you follow their instructions and become sun-phobic, your health will suffer. And P.S., I don’t think those sunscreens are a good idea. Those chemicals are absorbed through the skin, and their long-term effects have never been studied.
The ideal is timed, careful exposure without a sunscreen.