9 Surprising Health Benefits of Sunlight
Memes can soften the advice when it comes to serious topics, like health—including the meme that reminds us to drink water and get sunlight, because we’re basically houseplants with complicated emotions. Humans and plants have plenty in common…including the fact that we need sunlight to thrive.
One main reason is that sunlight is known for being the best natural source of vitamin D, which humans need to maintain healthy bones and teeth and reduce our risk of osteoporosis and fractures—but sunlight has other health benefits. We consulted a few doctors for this list of the major health benefits of sunlight.
Health benefits of sunlight
Sunlight produces serotonin
Most everyone has experienced feeling blah and lazy on a gray day, and happy and energetic on a sunny day. This is because of serotonin (or the lack of it). “Exposure to sunlight can improve your mood, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and increase feelings of happiness and well-being,” explains Grant Radermacher, DC, a Wisconsin chiropractor, who explains that serotonin regulates mood and helps regulate your circadian rhythm, which can improve sleep quality (and, with healthy sleep, makes you less likely to feel down or grumpy).
Sunlight helps us sleep
If you’ve ever taken melatonin to sleep, you might consider morning sunshine instead. “When people are exposed to sunlight in the morning, their nighttime melatonin production occurs sooner, and they enter into sleep more easily at night,” explains Carly King, ND, a naturopath in Ontario, CA. Sun exposure helps to regulate circadian rhythm and decreases insomnia.
Sunshine wakes us up
Morning sunshine helps us sleep and wakes us up. “When exposed to naturally occurring sunlight in the morning immediately after waking, adenosine levels lower, which increases our energy and ability to deal with inflammation and infection, and decreases the feeling of sleepiness from adenosine,” says Jill Carnahan, MD, ABIHM, IFMCP, a functional medicine doctor in Colorado.
And if you love enjoying a cup of coffee in the morning sun, here’s your green light! “Coffee blocks adenosine receptors, which is why we feel more awake when drinking coffee immediately upon arising,” Dr. Carnahan says. “But while coffee only blocks adenosine receptors making us feel less sleepy, natural sunlight actually lowers adenosine levels.”
Sunlight brightens mood
Thanks again to the serotonin, sunlight also boosts our mood. “Serotonin is a neurotransmitter made in our brain and gut,” explains Lana Butner, ND, LAc, a board-certified naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist. “The biochemical pathway that creates this happy ‘feel good’ chemical requires Vitamin D to transform tryptophan to tryptophan hydroxylase 2, which is one of necessary steps to get to serotonin.”
Sunlight improves sexual and reproductive health
Whether you’re looking to boost libido or get pregnant, vitamin D and sunlight are essential for reproductive health. “Sun exposure enhances romantic passion in both males and females,” says BreAnna Guan, ND, a naturopathic physician in Boston. “Exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) light increases testosterone levels in men, and Vitamin D levels may be related to ovarian reserve and reproductive hormone levels such as [follicle-stimulating hormone], [leuteinizing hormone] and estradiol in women.”
Sunlight reduces inflammation
Inflammation in the body is a concern, especially systemic inflammation. “Sunlight has anti-inflammatory effects on the body, which may help reduce the risk of chronic inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and asthma,” says Kien Vuu, MD, a performance and longevity expert who is also an assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCLA.
“Evidence shows an inverse relationship between sunlight exposure, blood pressure and cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Guan says, referencing studies that show insufficient sun exposure may be responsible for 340,000 deaths in the United States and 480,000 deaths in Europe per year.
Sunlight may reduce cancer risk
While we often equate sun exposure to an increased risk of skin cancer, sun exposure can help ward off other cancers. “While skin cancer risk is still a concern, regular sun exposure has been studied and shown to have a protective effect against the incidence of colorectal, breast, and prostate cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma,” says Dr. King—noting that sunburn prevention is a key element in reducing skin cancer risk.
Sunlight improves certain skin conditions
Because sunlight reduces overall inflammation, direct sunlight (for no more than 10 or 15 minutes, to be safe) can also help reduce inflammation on the surface of the skin. “Sunlight exposure can help treat certain skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, and acne,” Dr. Vuu says.
Dr. Radermacher adds that vitamin D produced by sunlight exposure helps promote the skin’s ability to heal.
Sunlight boosts the immune system
We get multiple health benefits any time we boost the immune system. “Sunlight exposure can increase the production of white blood cells, which are responsible for fighting off infections and diseases,” Dr. Radermacher says. In addition, vitamin D produced from sunlight regulates the immune system and reduces inflammation, which helps fight off infections.
- Grant Radermacher, DC, Ascent Chiropractic
- Carly King, ND, a naturopath in Hamilton, Ontario
- Jill Carnahan, MD, ABIHM, IFMCP, a functional medicine doctor in Colorado
- Lana Butner, ND, LAc, a board-certified naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist
- BreAnna Guan, ND, a naturopathic physician in Boston
- Kien Vuu, MD, performance and longevity expert, professor, author