Sunlight is deadly, and if you must be exposed to it—or even worse, choose to be—you’d better lather up with sunscreen.
Sounds familiar, right? But is it true?
A healthy dose of sunlight each day can aid in vitamin D production and keep your sleep schedule on track, among other benefits. For thousands of years, people have used sunlight as a means to aid health and even cure illness.. So, why has the concept of sunlight as a tool for aiding health gone out of favor over the course of time?
From ancient Greece to the Middle Ages, tanned skin was viewed as a sign of poverty, and so wealthy people minimized their exposure to sunlight. Then, in the 1900’s, research by Augusta Rollier led to the establishment of solaria—buildings designed to optimize exposure to sunlight—throughout Switzerland for the express purpose of sunbathing, which provided impressive results for fighting tuberculosis, smallpox, lupus, and even chronic diseases like arthritis.
But by the middle of the 20th century, sunlight had once again fallen out of vogue, in large part because the American Cancer Society began demonizing sun exposure as a significant cause of skin cancer.
However, doctors, scientists, and clinical research is demonstrating that consistent exposure to sunlight is actually a critical component to overall health. In this article, we’ll cover whether sunlight is dangerous, why it’s important, how you can actually benefit from increased exposure, and a few reasons why light therapy (or photobiomodulation) may enhance the sun’s healing power.
Does Sunlight Actually Cause Harm?
It turns out that the answer to this question isn’t as straightforward as most of us believe.
Think about this: throughout the ages, regardless of the geographical location, large groups of people have been exposed to nearly continuous sunlight. Even sunbathing in the U.S. was quite popular in the 1910’s and 1920’s. So, why did the melanoma epidemic not hit until the 1970’s? And if sunscreen is the solution, why have melanoma rates increased over 200% since 1973—even while the U.S. sunscreen industry has expanded from $18 million in 1972 to around $2 billion today?[2,3] It’s hard to believe that sunlight was the major problem, nor sunscreen the solution.
Indeed, the evidence supporting the myth that sunlight is harmful is starting to look like it has some cracks. Several recent studies have come to the conclusion that consistent sunlight exposure actually reduces the chances of getting melanoma, and instead increases survival rates. In fact, a recent review of many such studies published in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention concluded that “there is accumulating evidence for sunlight as a protective factor for several types of cancer.” Sadly, many people still live under the incorrect premise that sunlight is damaging and harmful.
So the evidence suggests that sunlight might not be the bad guy, after all—we just need to develop a better understanding of how sunlight affects our bodies, and how to harness its potential to improve our health.
Why is Sunlight So Important?
Like virtually all life on earth, the human body needs sunlight for many essential functions. It’s hard to overstate its importance for our emotional and physical health.
The fact that our bodies use UV wavelengths to produce vitamin D has been well established. However, many other critical benefits are not as widely understood.
The Benefits of Sunlight for Vitamin D
Vitamin D is an essential vitamin that assists our bodies in performing many critical processes. Vitamin D helps our bodies to process, absorb, and retain both calcium and phosphorus which are important elements in bone health and strength. Preliminary research suggests that vitamin D may also aid our immune system. It is common for individuals who have suffered from long term vitamin D deficiencies to develop autoimmune conditions at higher rates than those that have healthy levels of vitamin D.
The Benefits of Receiving Sunlight Through Your Eyes
Our retinas are connected directly to the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) of the hypothalamus gland, which acts as the master circadian pacemaker of the body. Because of this, light received through your eyes plays a critical role in hormonal functions—including melatonin production, which regulates our sleep. Quite literally, your body knows to shut off this hormone through exposure to morning sunlight. This type of exposure early in the day also helps produce melatonin later in the evening, when light is absent. Even more amazing, the hypothalamus gland, which is controlled by light, is responsible for controlling body temperature, thirst, hunger, and emotional activity—in addition to regulating your hormones and circadian rhythm!
Dopamine is another chemical that is regulated by light and released in the brain. It functions as a neurotransmitter and is closely tied to the emotions of reward and pleasure. In fact, many addictive drugs increase dopamine neuronal activity. Not surprisingly, studies have demonstrated that light exposure is tied to increased dopamine production. So it’s clear that light received through our eyes plays a much more powerful role than most of us realize.
Red Light Therapy and Natural Sunlight
There are many proven benefits of receiving certain wavelengths of natural sunlight directly through our skin and bodily tissues. One aspect that has received little attention (until recently) is related to the cellular processes affected by certain wavelengths of light.
Researchers in the field of red light therapy, or photobiomodulation (PBM), have discovered some incredibly powerful functions derived from wavelengths of light in the optimal window. Improved mitochondrial function, which impacts virtually all cellular metabolic activity, has been widely demonstrated to improve health in a number of ways—including enhanced muscle recovery, reduced inflammation, better sleep, and better overall skin health.
In addition to these clinically-proven benefits, you may be surprised to learn that red light therapy can actually prepare your cells for the effects of UV light later in the day. And amazingly, red light therapy in the evening can have a natural repairing effect from UV light. That’s because red and infrared wavelengths, which are delivered in higher concentrations from a red light device like a Joovv, have the unique ability to boost mitochondrial function. This, in turn, enables our cells to both withstand the stresses—and harness the benefits—of UV light.
How You Can Benefit from More Light
Getting as much natural sunlight as possible, especially during the right times of the day, is clearly important. For example, receiving morning sunlight correctly sets your circadian rhythm.
However, for a number of reasons, most of us find it challenging to spend hours in the sun—at the right time of day—on a regular basis. Either we live in an area with limited sunlight for large portions of the year, or our busy schedules just don’t allow for more time in the sun. In fact, it’s estimated that Americans spend 93% of their time indoors.
Because this is the case for most of us, a great way to receive the healthy wavelengths of light is by using a red light therapy device. One way to think of red light therapy is as a supplement for your health. Dietary supplements help fill out the vitamins your body needs, and regular red light therapy sessions help fill in the lack of natural light our bodies need.
If you want to know more about red light therapy and its wide-ranging benefits, check out our science page.