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The Powerful Benefits of Sunbathing (Responsibly)

by Suzanne Wentley

Woman with a straw hat at the beach looking up at the sun

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I spent the month of April in a quiet, mountainous village in Germany, where I worked on a book and rested. After living in South Florida for the winter, I had trouble adjusting to the weather. In Germany, it was overcast and cold. I barely went outside.


Although I was healthy, I still wasn’t feeling so great. Why? One reason came to mind: I wasn’t getting enough time in the sun. There’s nothing so wonderful as feeling the warmth of the sun’s rays on my face and shoulders.


I realized that I needed to incorporate the ancient practice of sunbathing to feel my best.

Now, wait a minute, Little Miss Sunshine, you’re probably thinking. Too much sun causes cancer! You’re right: Too much sunlight can not only increase the risk of skin cancer, but it also breaks down the skin’s collagen fibers and brings on premature wrinkles.


Ugh, and sunburns are the worst! That blue-sky afternoon in De Nang, Vietnam when I thought it’d be lovely to lie on the beach without sunscreen for an hour? That was definitely not a good idea. I was beyond miserable.


Thankfully, that kind of burn is rare for me. I’m blessed with the olive skin of my mother’s Mediterranean heritage. My father, meanwhile, has pale, freckled skin. He jokes that his version of a tan is when his freckles hold hands. So, I respect the reality that people with paler skin tones and family histories of skin cancer should spend less time in the direct sunshine.


But I’m still a proponent of spending time every day in the sun. It isn’t easy to know how much is too much, and how much isn’t enough. Yes, people with darker skin can still get burnt. The trick is to find a natural and healthy balance. Sunbathing can be a wonderfully healthy activity — when done mindfully and with intention.


An Argument for the Sun

No one is encouraging anyone to be Icarus, the Greek god who got cocky and flew too close to the sun, only for his waxy wings to melt. But there has been plenty of research that supports sunbathing as wellness practice for a variety of health reasons.


Free Vitamin D

Let’s start with the most widely known benefit: Sunlight naturally allows our bodies to produce vitamin D, which helps our body regulate calcium and phosphate for healthy bones, teeth, and muscles. Without vitamin D, kids develop rickets and adults can get osteomalacia, a condition that causes bone pain. What’s more, vitamin D can help reduce cancer cell growth, can help to control infections, and reduces inflammation. Yeah, it’s really important.


We can get vitamin D by eating oily fish (if you’re into that), red meat (if you’re into that), egg yolks (um, yeah, if you’re into that, and liver (and who, exactly, is into that?). There are some foods fortified with vitamin D, but I’m also not into processed foods.


You can take a supplement, but you can take too much. The US recommended daily allowance is 600 IU a day for adults. But why spend money on a pill or eat certain foods when you can get what you need for free just by going outside? Your body will never make too much vitamin D from the sun. It’s natural, baby.


Setting the Circadian Clock

Sunlight provides a surprising benefit: It can help you have a more restful night of sleep. Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman explains that viewing morning sunlight (without sunglasses and not through a window) as soon as possible after waking will regulate your circadian clock. This makes it easier to wake up and easier to fall asleep at the end of the day. Viewing that wavelength of morning light will also help to keep your immune system healthy, stabilize your metabolism, and allow you to focus throughout the day.


He recommends creating a habit of going outside to enjoy the afternoon sunlight, too. This helps the body learn to transition to rest, and it can even help to alleviate some of the damage we do by scrolling on our phones or watching the boob tube at night.


Mood Boosts

If you or someone you know suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), you know what it’s like to feel depressed and lethargic during the winter months. It’s not the cold temperature that’s to blame, but the lack of sunshine. Researchers found that the more sun we enjoy, the more elevated our serotonin levels. Serotonin is a hormone that allows us to feel happy and optimistic.


When my mother was diagnosed with SAD, I bought her a light therapy lamp. I use it whenever I visit my parents during winter months in Pennsylvania (which has a climate very similar to Germany, by the way). Some climates make getting enough sunlight a challenge — but you’ll feel better if you try.


Lower Blood Pressure

The more I researched the benefits of sunlight, the more I found! Studies also show that feeling the rays of the sun on the skin helps the body release nitrogen oxide, which actually lowers blood pressure. In turn, this helps with cardiovascular health and even works to reverse metabolic syndrome. No wonder I feel so relaxed on sunny days!


How Much Sun Is Best?

Your optimum time in the sun depends on many individual factors. You should consider your skin tone, where you live, and your family history when practicing sunbathing.


Researchers published in Environmental Health Perspectives suggest a half hour is plenty for most lighter-skin folks, but darker-skinned individuals may require double that time. If it’s cloudy, you can usually stay out longer. But beware: Clouds don’t block all the UV rays, so it’s still possible to get a sunburn if it’s overcast.


Here are some ideas for getting the healthiest amount of sunlight every day:


Wear a hat

When I lived in South Korea, I saw plenty of people who hid from the sun with gloves, full face masks, long-sleeved shirts, hats, and pants. Did I mention South Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world? In the name of ageless beauty, they’re missing out on the health benefits of sunbathing. But they had a point: No one wants to be wrinkled.


A compromise is simply wearing a hat and being mindful of what areas of skin soak up the most sun. An intentional 30 minutes in a bathing suit is better than cooking a “farmer’s tan” all day.


Consider sunscreen

If you’re going to be outside for more than an hour, you may want to cover up or use sunscreen. There’s quite a debate about sunscreen, however. Natural sunscreens usually contain high levels of zinc, which I find hard to rub in.


Stack habits

I have a long list of healthy habits, and many of them can be done outside in the sun. I can take a walk or practice yoga outside for exercise, meditate in the garden, play my ukulele on my front step, or read on a blanket in the afternoon grass. When you stack habits, you can live a robustly healthy life and enjoy the benefits of sunshine at the same time.


Breathe deeply

The practice of sunbathing is as old as the breath. A powerful way to improve your health is to take mindful, deep breaths while soaking in the rays. Inhale and exhale through your nose for 5.5 seconds, filling the belly with air before pressing it all out. One of the best books on this topic is James Nestor’s Breath. Consider reading it outside in the sun!


This article is informative and is not intended as medical advice. If you have health-related questions about sun exposure, please ask your medical professional!

 

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