Whether it’s by staying indoors or using plenty of sunscreen, we’ve all been told to avoid direct exposure to the sun at all costs. Indeed, unprotected overexposure to the sun’s radiation is the main cause of skin cancer, including melanoma and carcinoma. However, a moderate amount of sunshine on your skin can provide a range of health benefits, and because people tend to spend more time indoors as they age, it may take more of a conscious effort to get the sun you need.
While it’s important to be careful about overdoing it, we recommend regular, brief outdoor sessions as a way to enjoy the following benefits:
Getting enough vitamin D.
Our bodies rely on sunlight to produce vitamin D, so it’s important for seniors because vitamin D helps maintain proper vascular and skeletal health. This reduces the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attack, as well as osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and hip fractures. Low vitamin D levels, on the other hand, can lead to stiffness, pain, and mobility problems. Also, natural sunlight is the best way to get enough vitamin D. High doses of vitamin D supplements can cause elevated levels of serum calcium, which is bad for cardiovascular health.
The warmth you feel from the sun, along with vitamin D your body produces, can reduce chronic pain and even increase the mobility of your joints. And because exposure to the sun can help with stress and improve your mood, you may have more tolerance for minor aches and pains.
Better immune function.
Because exposure to sunlight increases vitamin D production, it can suppress an overactive immune system by reducing the immune response trigger, decreasing the severity of symptoms. That’s why sunlight is often used as a treatment for autoimmune diseases, such as psoriasis or lupus. Also, sun exposure increases white blood cells, defending the body against infection.
Improved brain function.
Research has shown that low vitamin D levels reduce cognitive brain function. Additional studies show that sunlight may promote nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that forms, organizes, and stores memories.
Better blood pressure control.
A 2013 study at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland found that, when the skin is exposed to sunlight, the body immediately releases nitric oxide into the bloodstream, lowering blood pressure.
Protecting and strengthening bones.
Vitamin D is well known to stimulate the absorption of calcium and phosphorous in the body. That said, there is a direct correlation between bone density and vitamin D3, which is formed during the process of making vitamin D. So high levels of D3 in the blood substantially lower the risk of a bone fracture.
Your mood is largely driven by two natural chemicals your body produces: endorphins and serotonin. Both of these chemicals are boosted by exposure to sunlight. Someone who doesn’t get enough sunlight can develop seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression that occurs when serotonin levels drop due to lack of sunlight.
When your body detects natural sunlight, it stops producing melatonin, a hormone that helps you sleep. By spending a little time in the sunshine early in the day, you’ll feel more alert and have less trouble getting to sleep at night.
While long, extended periods of exposure to the sun’s rays are still discouraged due to increased risk of skin cancer, spending shorter periods of time in the sun several times a week is a good idea. Just be cautious, especially if you are fair skinned, have a history of skin cancer, or experience suspicious changes in your skin condition, especially moles that change in size, shape, or color.