Having more energy, better sleep, and finally reaching that happy weight could be as simple as getting more sunshine. The benefits of sunlight include better mental, physical, and emotional health. There are many factors when it comes to our health, but sunshine plays an important role.
- As moms, we want to be able to wake up and hit the ground running. Despite the best intentions and long to-do lists, we might not always hit the mark. We may find ourselves sleeping in because of low energy or dealing with headaches from hormone imbalances.
- There are many things that can trigger poor sleep, hormone problems, or stress. But one of the most natural (and cheapest!) ways to find some relief is often overlooked—sunlight exposure. There are science-backed benefits to getting morning sunlight exposure. And it’s not just about helping you wake up!
- There’s more to morning sunlight than getting our daily vitamin D. The good news is we can reap the health benefits of morning sunlight exposure all year long—even if it’s indoors.
- Read on to learn all the important ways bright morning sunlight can support good health. It might even be the missing piece of your wellness puzzle.
Essential Benefits of Sunlight
- People associate sunlight with the benefits of vitamin D. But even if vitamin D levels are great, we still need morning sunlight. Our ancestors rose with the sun and slept when it set. Human bodies weren’t made to be on the go for 18 hours a day (or more!). Yet being the modern moms we are, we often burn the candle at both ends.
- There are many physical and mental health benefits when our body clocks are in sync with the sun. When we talk about sunlight, we’re actually discussing UV (ultraviolet) rays. We’re exposed to two types of sunlight—UVA and UVB.
- UVB rays help with Vitamin D production but are blocked by glass.
UVA comes through windows and offers other sunlight benefits.
Improved Physical Health
Not only does morning sun exposure boost vitamin D levels, but there are other biological processes happening in the body. These include:
When exposed to indoor or outdoor sunlight, the skin releases nitric oxide from storage into the bloodstream. This compound triggers arteries to dilate. Once dilated, blood pressure lowers.
Constant stress can lead to higher blood pressure, even in people who don’t have blood pressure problems or cardiovascular disease. Healthy blood pressure levels are good for the heart and may also help decrease headache frequency.
Sunlight on skin cells stimulates the compound heme-oxygenase. This triggers when cells are stressed, which happens from ultraviolet (UV) exposure. However, not all cellular stress is a bad thing.
In this case, moderate amounts of sun exposure can lead to increased production of iron and carbon monoxide. While carbon monoxide is deadly to breathe, when it’s converted in the cells in small amounts, it prevents the production of inflammatory cytokine cells. So sun exposure triggers a built-in anti-inflammatory cell effect.
Immune Cell Regulation
The immune system has a complex arsenal of different cell types. When one cell doesn’t function or is produced in imbalanced amounts, the immune system can become suppressed or stimulated. This can lead to autoimmune disease, inflammatory conditions, or even cancer.
UV exposure can increase the activity of T-regulatory cells. These are the immune cells that tell other cell types to calm down. T-regulatory cells are often lacking in people who develop autoimmune disorders.
By supporting the immune system’s ability to regulate itself, you can protect your overall health. This also protects from excessive inflammation and neurodegenerative disorders like multiple sclerosis.
Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer are associated with poor glucose metabolism. This can happen when the body is unable to break down and use glucose. The process is tied to insulin response, other hormones, and many different factors.
Metabolic syndrome is related to blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and many other health issues. As many as 20-30% of people around the world are dealing with this disorder. However, sunlight and UV exposure can help by promoting normal metabolic function.
Studies are ongoing as to the specific type, amount, and broad spectrum of benefits. Regularly getting morning sunlight helps balance circadian rhythms which can support appetite regulation and improve overall metabolic markers.
UVB light can also help improve skin health. Inflammatory, autoimmune-related skin conditions, like eczema and psoriasis, can benefit from sunlight. Psoriasis can cause scaly, flaky patches on the skin because the skin cells grow too fast. UVB light can help slow this overactive growth down and help calm inflammation.
Scientists also use targeted phototherapy as a way to address psoriasis without risking sunburn. These same anti-inflammatory effects can also help calm eczema symptoms, potentially by correcting vitamin D deficiency on the skin.
Mood and Mental Health
The benefits of morning sunlight extend well beyond specific markers of physical health. It can noticeably impact your mood, mental health, and stress perception. People with seasonal affective disorder develop symptoms because of the lack of bright light exposure.
Having low vitamin D levels is tied to a greater risk for depression. However, it’s more than just vitamin D.
Decreased sun exposure is tied to cognitive impairment, unrelated to nutritional status. This happens for a few reasons. Natural sunlight has a direct effect on circadian rhythm. This affects how the hypothalamus works in the brain, impacting several factors like levels of serotonin and melatonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of calm, balance, and well-being. Without enough light wave exposure during the day, serotonin can’t produce enough melatonin to induce a regular sleep cycle later. Being unable to sleep leads to chronic exhaustion and sleeping in later, which decreases potential morning sunlight exposure. It becomes a vicious cycle of neurotransmitter imbalance, low mood, and stress.
This hypothalamus brain network also influences things like:
- Body temperature regulation
- Energy levels
- Blood pressure
- Digestive function
- Hormonal systems
- Immune activation
- Think about morning sunlight as the charging cord for your brain. You can’t expect your laptop to work if you don’t charge the battery. If your brain consistently doesn’t get signals from light waves, especially in the morning, it will struggle to sense the time of day and the type of signals it should send to the body systems. This can result in a meltdown in one or more areas and make you feel like your whole body is misfiring!
- Light wavelengths also have a strong influence on how much blood is available to the brain. Studies show blood flow in the brain improves after light therapy. Decreased blood flow in the brain is tied to cognitive problems, low mood, poor sleep, and even preventable age-related problems.
We already know serotonin triggers the production of melatonin. If the brain is off earlier in the day, it may not make enough melatonin. This could lead to insomnia or problems sleeping well through the night.
While we can supplement with melatonin, that won’t permanently fix the situation. Our brain needs to get the right signals from light waves so it can keep the rest of the body on a healthy schedule. Sleep disorders alone cause many health problems. They may be at the root of many issues, including:
- Immune system problems
- High blood pressure
- Different types of depression
Having a circadian rhythm that is out of sync is not an easy problem to fix… unless you go to the source. The internal body clock is tied to the pattern of the sun. Regulating your body’s internal clock can easily be done by aligning yourself to the schedule the sun has already set.
This is, of course, challenging for people who do shift work or for parents who have infants and small children. But still not impossible! We’ll talk more about how to make these changes below.
Benefits of Sunlight: Who Needs It?
Everyone needs sunlight exposure! Literally every human being. However, there’s not a one-size-fits-all formula for how much sunlight someone specifically needs. The factors that depend on sunlight exposure for vitamin D range dramatically, depending on:
- Skin type
- The time of year
- Other health factors
I talked to Ari Whitten about all the health benefits of sunlight in a podcast episode. Some of us may have poor sun tolerance, sunburn easily, or just generally be sensitive to it. I used to be that way.
Dietary changes, especially antioxidants and phytonutrients, can help increase sun tolerance. This goes to show that dysregulation in any one area, like diet or lack of sunlight, can magnify those effects in other areas. It’s the reason why I “eat” my sunscreen!
I get that it can be hard to find balance in every area of your life, especially with small kids, parenting, and working. But small steps toward balance can have a big impact, especially when we are consistent. Showing up for morning sunlight every day can invest in a healthy mood, good sleep, lower stress levels, better digestion, and so much more!
You need sunlight exposure if you’re a well-rested executive, a burnt-out mother, or a late-night dorm-living college student. Everyone needs morning sun exposure to facilitate all of the vital body processes that we never see… until they start to misfire. Vitamin D supplementation can support many aspects of health, but it won’t replace the sun’s rays.
Only your dermatologist can assess your personal health and give you medical advice. But for many, moderate sun exposure with or without sun protection is safe. Melanoma is typically the result of many factors, including total childhood sun exposure, other health factors, skin microbiome, and more.
How to Get Morning Sunlight
When we’re already busy or overwhelmed, it can be hard to add something new to the day. There are easy, practical ways to work morning sunlight exposure into existing habits. The payoff is well worth the slight adjustment to a morning routine.
To get the benefits of sunlight, we don’t just need to expose the skin. We also need to expose our eyes! I’m not talking about staring into the sun though.
I talked to Matt Maraca on the podcast, and he explained that the way light comes in through an ocular pathway can have a significant impact on how the brain processes information, including light. The skin takes in UV rays, but our eyes also send signals to the brain. Wearing sunglasses can get in the way of these benefits.
If you’re sensitive to bright light, you can spend some of your time with your eyes closed. But you’ll build up a tolerance as you get used to it. For those who are typically indoors a lot, or whose sun exposure is normally later in the day, the morning sun can feel blinding. But this type of light is what sets about the brain, hormone, and overall body balance that is needed to reset the internal clock.
I like to begin my day with a cup of tea or coffee and sit outside on the front porch. If you’re a morning person, try waking up slightly before the kids and bring a book or your favorite drink outside for just 10-15 minutes first thing in the morning. Even if you’re not a morning person, a nice, sunny day can really brighten the mood.
Unfortunately, we can’t get vitamin D through a window. Glass blocks a specific type of UV ray that creates vitamin D in the body in response to a cholesterol conversion. Sunscreen also affects the way UV light can produce vitamin D in the body. However, as we’ve already discussed, morning sunlight is important for health, even without vitamin D.
When going outdoors isn’t an option consider the following:
- Find a window that faces east. If you live in an apartment that has no east-facing windows, try a public space in your apartment that has sun exposure. If neither of these work, a coffee shop or a place that is part of your morning routine can give you direct eastward-facing sunlight.
- It’s not necessary to sit in the sun for hours. For those new to sunlight exposure or hard-pressed for time, even 5-10 minutes of consistent morning sunlight every day can start to improve the internal body clock.
- If you have small kids, take them with you! You don’t need to do this solo. I noticed a major improvement in my health when I started sitting in the sun every morning with my family. Plus, they got the same health benefits that I did. If you can’t take them all outside, you can sit together in front of a bright morning light window or doorway.
There are additional benefits to outdoor morning sunlight. Vitamin D production depends on a lot of factors and isn’t necessarily as important first thing in the morning. But with outdoor morning sunlight, you also get fresh air, which has plenty of benefits on its own!
Morning sunlight can make outdoor sun exposure easier in the summer for people who have heat intolerance. Even if it’s winter, bundling up and keeping the eyes and face exposed to the light will still give some of the same benefits. The bright morning rays through the eyes will still get the message to the brain!