With the warm weather upon us, it’s time to prepare for our time spent outside in the sun. While prolonged sun exposure can be harmful to skin, a moderate amount can boost your mood, among other benefits. When our body is exposed to sunlight, scientists think that our brain releases the hormone, serotonin, which is associated with feelings of calm, focus, and improved mood. At night, the darkness triggers the brain to release a different hormone called melatonin, which helps regulate our sleep cycle.
A lack of adequate sunlight can cause serotonin levels to dip, and low levels are associated with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression triggered by changing seasons. You are more likely to experience SAD in the winter when the days are shorter. Anxiety-related disorders and panic attacks have also been linked with reduced sunlight and changing seasons.
The production of serotonin is triggered when sunlight goes through the retina in the eye. Fortunately, there is a treatment for SAD; doctors can recommend light therapy, where a special light box is used to stimulate the brain into producing more serotonin and reducing excess melatonin. Light therapy can also benefit individuals suffering from non-seasonal depression.
Exposure to ultraviolet-B radiation in the sun’s rays increases the production of vitamin D. In one study, researchers looked at the amount of vitamin D produced in 30 minutes of sun exposure while wearing a swimsuit. They found that dark skinned people produced 8,000 to 10,000 international units (IUs), tan people produced 20,000 to 30,000 IUs, and most Caucasion people produced around 50,000 IUs. Vitamin D plays a big role in bone health, and people with lower levels are at an increased risk for osteoporosis and osteomalacia.
It is important to protect our skin against excess sun exposure to prevent skin cancer; however, a moderate amount of sunlight has been proven to help prevent some cancers. Individuals who lived in areas with fewer daylight hours had fewer people with colon cancer, ovarian cancer, hodgkin’s lymphoma, among others.
Sunlight is even prescribed to treat several skin conditions, such as psoriasis, eczema, jaundice, and acne. A dermatologist can determine if light therapy is the best treatment option for you.
Protect your skin against the sun with the following tips:
- Choose the right protection. High SPF, broad-spectrum sunscreen is best. Remember that sunscreen should be applied 20 minutes before going outside and that it should be reapplied often, especially if you are swimming.
- Add extra protection. Wear a hat and sunglasses, or bring an umbrella with you to protect your skin from prolonged sun exposure.
- Stay hydrated. Protect your skin and overall well-being against the sun and heat by drinking water! Avoid dehydration and improve your skin’s elasticity by staying hydrated.
- Protect your skin year-round. The sun’s harmful rays affect our skin, even on cloudy days. Make it a part of your morning routine to apply sunscreen to your face year-round.
Anyone can get skin cancer, so it is important to be proactive about your skin’s health. Studies recommend 10 to 20 minutes of sun exposure during the spring and summer, but remember to wear sunscreen and stay hydrated!
Holick, M., “Vitamin D and sunlight: strategies for cancer prevention and other health benefits,” Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, June 2008, 3(5), 1548-1554.
“How to Sun-Proof (and Age-Proof) Your Skin,” Prevention Magazine, November 3, 2011.
Lambert, G. W., & Reid, C., Kaye, D. M. Jennings, G. L., & Esler, M. D., “Effect of sunlight and season on serotonin turnover in the brain,” The Lancet, December 2002, 360(9348), 1840-1842.
Mead, M.N, “Benefits of sunlight: a bright spot for human health,” Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2008, 116(4), A160-A167.
Sansone, R. A. & Sansone, L. A., “Sunshine, serotonin, and skin: a partial explanation for seasonal patterns in psychopatholoy?” Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience., July/August 2012, 10(7-8), 20-24.
Young, S. “How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs,” Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, November, 2007, 32(6), 394-399.