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The benefits of sunshine aren't all in the Vitamin D. Sunlight has many other benefits for our bodies. Let's find out what the sun can do for you, and how you can make the most of it this summer.

Hip, hip hooray. The sun has finally got its hat on. We can discard our winter-woollies (it only took 'til July!) and break out our shorts, garden chairs, and ice-lolly making kits. With the new, warmer weather, we're all feeling brighter and tempted to catch some summer sun.

But isn't that bad? Isn't skin cancer lurking in every sunny ray, waiting to kill us?

Maybe not. Recent research suggests that, even taking the risk for skin cancer fully into account, sunshine has some vital health giving benefits that help protect us against damaging and disabling conditions, and may help us all live longer, healthier lives.  

Discussions about the health benefits of the sunlight frequently focus on Vitamin D. However, this new research suggests that not all health benefits are related to Vitamin D.

Here, we look at how the sun can help you feel great (and explore how you can take care when catching those rays).

Healthier Heart

Exposure to the sunlight prompts the release of nitric acid in our bodies. Nitric oxide is key for keeping your veins dilated, allowing blood to flow smoothly, making it essential for heart health. Since 1880, it was a key ingredient in Nitroglycerin, one of the earliest medications to control heart diseases such as angina and high blood pressure. Thus, getting more sun may help protect your cardiovascular system.

Better Mood

Sunlight promotes the release of feel-good neurotransmitter, Serotonin. Low Serotonin is linked to depression, panic, anxiety, and even anger. That's why our most common antidepressants, SSRIs, are designed to boost Serotonin levels in the brain.

By boosting Serotonin, the production of new brain cells is triggered, which in time helps the depression to lift.

Better Sleep

Getting some sun during the day may improve your sleep by helping to regulate your biorhythms. Sun exposure enters the eye and strikes the retina. Our brain-cells detect natural light and tell our bodies to either wake up or go to sleep. By regulating these biorhythms, you may start to find it easier to sleep when there is an absence of natural light.

A well-regulated body clock, and better sleep, is better for our overall health. Bad sleep leads to a poor immune system. With compromised immunity, we are invaded by every cold and flu. Hormones are disturbed. We suffer more stomach problems. We suffer low mood, poor memory, and bad concentration. Our relationships suffer, and work becomes problematic.

Lesson: we need our sleep. So try to get a little sun.

Better Kids' Eyesight

The Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence in Vision Science found kids who spend most of the day inside have a significantly increased incidence of "high myopia" (a severe type of short-sightedness, where the eyeballs are abnormal). A lack of the brain-chemical Dopamine is believed to be responsible. Sunshine hitting the retina releases Dopamine, which makes eyeballs grow to normal-size, preventing this condition.

Sunshine: more than just a pretty face.

Relieves Fibromyalgia Pain

Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain condition where pain spreads all over the muscles and joints of the body. The pain can be widespread, destabilising and debilitating. It is incurable, however, some success has been had treating fibromyalgia with sun therapy.

It's believed this pain relief is caused by the UV rays. A 2009 study at Wake Forest Baptist gave 19 patients with fibromyalgia controlled sessions on sunbeds for fifteen minutes a week for six weeks: half used UV sunbeds, half didn't. The half who used UV sunbeds reported a "slight" reduction in pain.

Could Protect Against Multiple Sclerosis

Patients with Multiple Sclerosis sometimes say they feel better in the summer, finding their symptoms abating when the weather gets warmer.. The sunshine may be responsible for the improvement. For years, we all thought the protection sunlight provides against Multiple Sclerosis (MS) was all about the Vitamin D.

Recently, we've begun to think again. MS is an autoimmune disorder, where the body attacks its own tissue. A recent animal study looked at the animal equivalent experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE). In this study, lab animals were exposed to UV light. It was found that, though their Vitamin D only rose slightly, there was a significant reduction in the activity of the disease, suggesting Vitamin D is not solely responsible for the benefits patients with MS feel in the summer months.

Of course, this is only one study (and an animal study, at that) so we should be cautious about drawing too many conclusions.

Keeps You Slim

UV light suppresses obesity. This is because it triggers the release of nitric acid, which helps insulin work properly. If insulin doesn't work properly, blood glucose can't be effectively utilised. If glucose is not used, it is moved to the liver, where it becomes triglycerides and is stored as fat. Lack of insulin doesn't only lead to more fat in the body, it also lets diabetes set in.

More Benefits of Sun and Staying Safe

May Protect Against Cancer

Several studies suggest that sun contact may actually protect against deadly melanoma. One study showed that melanoma patients who had spent time in the sun were less likely to die than other patients, and were also prone to less-aggressive tumours.

An Italian study, published in the European Journal of Cancer, back-up those claims, showing improved survival rates among patients who had had more-frequent sun exposure before their cancer was diagnosed.

Nah, I'm not convinced.

A March study from the prestigious Karolinska Institute in Stockholm concluded that avoiding the sun is as bad for you as smoking. The study of 30,000 Swedish women, followed for 20 years, found that 1.5 sun-worshippers in 100 had died in that period, compared with 3.0 in 100 women who avoided all sun-exposure.

The sun-lovers were at a much lower risk of cardiovascular death, and other conditions not related to cancer.

Heart disease will kill one in four women!

Safe Sun Exposure

So, if you want to get the benefits of the sun, and minimise the potential risks, how do you do that?

If you want to get some sun, be safe and be smart.

Safe sun exposure is not about becoming a sun-worshipper. It's not about spending hours in the sun, and it's not about getting a tan.

Here are Twelve Top Tips for Safe Sun Exposure

  1. Always Respect the Sun: The sun is a powerful medicine. It can heal your body, help your mood and even protect against illness. Your skin is your body's biggest organ. So be respectful when you put the two together. Would you take a potent medicine at a very high dose for a very long time without a doctor's advice? Exactly. The sun is a potent medicine. Always use the minimal dose. And don't fall asleep outdoors.
  2. Never Burn: Let's call a spade a spade, for a moment. It's not a "healthy glow". If you're lobster red, you've burned; if you've got a tan, your skin is damaged. This is especially important if you're fair-skinned. It's skin-damage that leads to melanoma, not sun exposure. Do not aim to tan.
  3. Build your tolerance: Intermittent sun-exposure (when you have none at all and then a glut of it) raises your risk for melanoma, so build up tolerance slowly. Start in Spring by going out early in the morning and increase the amount of time you spend outdoors gradually.
  4. Get 10-30 minutes unprotected sun exposure, twice to three times a week: The actual amount you need will vary, based on age, skin-tone and location. A very fair-skinned person may only need 10 minutes. Older people might need a little longer. People living in the UK or Canada, where there isn't much sun, might need 20 minutes to get their daily dose. You aim to have a pale pink hue 24 hours late.
  5. Do not go unprotected in the sun for two days together: You need at least 24 to 48 hours for your skin to rest. Sunbathing causes erythema (that very slight pinking of the average person's skin), which shows you have the optimal dose of UV, and thus the optimal dose of vitamin D, and other sun-related goodness. It takes at least 24 hours for the erythema to go down.
  6. After your 10-30 minutes is up, protect all exposed areas of skin as you would normally do: Be sure to wear sunglasses, a T-shirt and - most importantly - a hat (one that covers your neck and shoulders is great, and a MUST for kids). The dose of sunscreen you need will vary based on skin-tone, but everyone needs at least a Factor 15 (30 for children). Very fair people (such as those of Scandinavian origin or redheads, would still benefit from using a Factor 50). Remember what I said about your skin being your body's biggest organ? Well, remember that when you choose your sunscreen . Many sunscreens are full of chemicals. Look out for a more natural sunscreen with fewer chemicals (Goddess Garden, and True Natural have good ranges).
  7. Don't forget to reapply: Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours. Always reapply every time you swim, even if it hasn't been two hours since your last application (especially if you towel-dry). If you have a water-resistant sunscreen, it still needs to be reapplied 40 minutes after entering the water, "because water-resistant" means that the sunscreen has been tested for up to 40 minutes. After that, you're not protected anymore.
  8. Avoid the sun when it's at its height: Be sure to cover between the hours of 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m, and try to stick to the shade. They're the hottest hours of the day. Contrary to popular belief, there are UV rays as long as the sun's up. By taking your sun before and after the hottest period of the day, you can enjoy the benefits and minimise the risks.
  9. Look after your sunscreen: Be careful to store it in a cool, shady cupboard. Storing it somewhere hot will destroy its protective compounds. Also, check the expiration date before you use it. Expired sunscreen is as bad as no sunscreen.
  10. Consume "sunscreen foods": These are the foods that are high in healthy fats and antioxidants, helping to repair our skin cells and protect them from sun-damage. Omega-3 fish oil, raspberries, Goji berries, pomegranates, and green vegetables are all great food choices if you're going out into the sun.
  11. Stay off the sunbeds: The sun is a natural orb, and a little time in it has shown to be good for you. Sunbeds are unnatural units that blast you with high concentrations of UV light and, studies show, increase the risk of all known types of cancer. Please avoid them.
  12. Don't forget your Vitamin D: Vitamin D is a nutrient that we synthesise from the sun, and also provides essential health-giving properties. Eat a diet rich in these Vitamin D rich foods to support your health: oily fish (like salmon, sardines and tuna), cheese, and egg yolks. If you're deficient, you may experience symptoms like pains in your joints and fatigue. It's hard to get all the Vitamin D you require from food, or even the sun. Consider having your Vitamin D levels regularly checked, and take supplements if you're deficient.

Sun or No Sun. That is the Question.

Martin Feelisch, a professor of experimental medicine at Southampton University says current warnings to avoid the sun are a serious risk factor for heart disease, which kills many more people than skin cancer. "We believe current public health advice, which is dominated by concerns of skin cancer, needs to be carefully reassessed," he argues, "It is time to look at the balance of risk of skin cancer and cardiovascular disease."

However, Professor Feelisch doesn't recommend prolonged sunbathing.

Meanwhile, Dr. Lindqvist of the Karolinska Institute says: "We know in our population, there are three big lifestyle factors [that endanger health]: smoking, being overweight, and inactivity. Now we know there is a fourth - avoiding sun exposure."

Throughout this new research, there is one clear recurring theme. While we shouldn't avoid the sun, we ought to respect it, being careful to avoid burning or overexposure. Our new understanding of the potential benefits can lead to a new, healthy balance where people protect their skin and still enjoy the sun's healthy benefits in moderation.

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