A good weekend out in the sun does wonders for the body and soul. Walking through the National Parks that surround the bays and water causeways around Sydney whilst the sun is shining is one of those rare pleasures. So many in the world bemoan this lack of luxury and yet here in Sydney, we get the best of it all with year round availability of trails and paths that end up at pristine beachside locations and take in spectacular views. We really are lucky.
A leisurely hike on the weekend with a prompt swim in the ocean as a reward at the end of it all is a great gift for us. And our bodies sing with elation at the end of the day when you have spent a few hours out in the sun. Our muscles feel invigorated and you get that lovely sleepy feeling when you get home of having been sun kissed and done backflips in the water being suspended in gravitational limbo, which our bodies just love.
So what is about being out in the sunshine that does us so much good? With all the admonishment over sun tanning and getting too tanned and having skin cancer’s as a great risk for living in our nation ‘girt by sea’ (still never seen that word in any other context), is it possible we can begrudge the weather that we may or may not take for granted?
Sunshine is beneficial. There is so much about sunshine and being out in the sun that really is quite healthy and promotes vitality and energy. Vitamin D, strengthening of bones, endorphin levels – all these elements benefit from exposure to sunlight. And let’s face it. Getting out in the air and sunshine has to be good for you. As with all things it’s a balance and we have to be mindful of our exposure to the harmful effects of too much sun, but with all the ‘fear mongering’ of sunlight exposure perhaps we need to measure it with some positivity.
One of the biggest benefits of sunshine is the direct effect it has on our body rhythms. Our internal clock that rules our mood and makes us drowsy when we need to sleep and vivacious when we should be active. These circadian rhythms are a vital element to keeping our internal rhythms ticking over and regulating such important aspects such as digestion, defecation, immune function, hormone regulation and a host of other elements (even reproduction) that lead us to having a ‘great’ or ‘crap’ day.
The big element in this factor is MELATONIN. This is the hormone the rules our sleeping patterns. In essence, it makes us drowsy and can send off into ZZZ land stimulating hormonal changes that bring about the onset of sleeping patterns. It is produced by the pineal gland and is part of a 4-step process of neuro-enzymes that brings about the onset of sleeping patterns in humans. It can also act as an antioxidant, attacking free radicals in the body as well as interacting with the immune system and in particular inflammatory cycles. In preclinical studies it has been shown to act on cytokine activity (signal cells that call to action other cellular activity) and it is also being explored as a factor in fighting infectious diseases as well as rheumatoid arthritis.
One of the factors that pertains to healthy melatonin levels is exposure to sunlight in the morning hours. Establishing exposure to the eyes in the early hours of the morning (we are talking up to 9am here not just 5am) brings about an earlier increase of melatonin in the evening and thus establishes an ideal circadian rhythm of waking and sleeping. So in effect, wearing your sunglasses on your morning commute could not be doing you any favours. Melatonin is vital for those suffering from insomnia, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and even premenstrual stress. BINGO! As we age melatonin levels decrease in production and often it can become difficult to maintain those vital circadian rhythms, so getting out and about in those early sunshine hours can be of great benefit to getting your sleeping patterns back on track. There has even been documented support of some people taking melatonin as a supplement to counteract these effects. As most of you know, I’m not into imbibing in supplemental form for any beauty benefit so beware the claim of ‘melatonin decreases ageing’. It’s an as yet unproven element in research fields.
In terms of life expectancy, there is some debate around ‘healthy’ levels of sun exposure. It is not possible for any population to completely abandon exposure to the sun and expect healthy longevity. The elements we derive from exposure to sunlight run to the core of our physicality. However, there are genetic and evolutionary elements to our sun exposure and how much we should/can handle. The skin pigmentation of indigenous populations supports this theory of augmenting exposure to sunlight that is dangerous (UV radiation) and ensuring we adapt to levels of safe exposure. Interestingly enough, in populations of predominantly low level sunlight availability, there is a case for the advocation of more sunlight to maintain Vitamin D levels and bone density, particularly in females. However, this is directly related to genetic factors of those from low level sunlight topography and shouldn’t be seen as an advocate for spending ridiculous amounts of hours in the sun.
But sunshine does do us good! It works for us and helps us with processing nutrients, establishing hormonal regulation and acting against disease and toxicity in our bodies. According to Robyn Lucas at the Australian National University there are no recommendations on a safe level of total lifetime sun exposure
“analysis of lifespan versus disease shows that far more lives worldwide could be lost to diseases caused by lack of sunlight than to those cause by too much.”
So be sun safe and aware of your exposure to sunshine, but don’t be afraid to get out and get amongst it as well. Take those leisurely weekend strolls, take your sunglasses off before 9am, get some early morning sunshine and you’ll find your sleep patterns and general demeanour being bouncy and full of vitality.