Praise the Sun! How Sun Exposure can Improve Happiness

 

As the days grow longer, the sunshine more abundant, and the temperatures warmer (at least where I live in the Northern Hemisphere) I wanted to talk today about sunlight, vitamin D, mood, and of course happiness. I doubt that much of this will come as too much of a revelation, with the association of sunlight and happiness now being widely known. What I do hope is that I can shed light (pun intended) on the science of why and how sunlight affects our happiness and mental health. 

I used to write 60-page scientific studies on a monthly basis, but I am going to reel in my geekiness here and try to deliver this message in a quickly consumed message of approximately one thousand words or so. The sun has been worshipped by humanity for many thousands of years. It brings light by which we can see, protecting us from predators of the night. It grows our crops that sustain our life and it gives us warmth. And yes, sunlight promotes happiness and overall health. 

When sunlight hits the skin, it stimulates the production of vitamin D, specifically 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 (1,25[OH]D), the active form of the vitamin. This does two things, it stimulates the release of endorphins in the skin, endorphins being the happiness hormone, immediately creating a sensation of happiness. 

Chemical structure of an endorphin

Beyond merely the endorphins and the immediate gratification of such, the vitamin D in particular is of particular benefit to our overall health. Studies by the World Health Organization (WHO) have indicated a strong association of disease and mortality with low levels of vitamin D. It turns out, that vitamin D is one of the most critical nutrients we can consume, with an estimated “1,000 different genes governing virtually every tissue in the body being regulated by 1,25[OH]D.  Thus indicating that greater levels of vitamin D would correlate to greater wellness. 1,25(OH)D accumulates in cell nuclei of the intestine, where it enhances calcium and phosphorus absorption, controlling the flow of calcium into and out of bones to regulate bone-calcium metabolism, among many other things. With these benefits being recognized, it goes to say that not only does sunlight play a role in making us feel good, but it also plays a role in overall health, leading to a greater sense of total health and happiness. 

Chemical structure of vitamin D

How much is enough? Typically, we consider nutrient intake in terms of Recommended Daily Allowance, or RDA. As it turns out though, this may not be the wisest decision. “Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) are the levels of intake of essential nutrients that, on the basis of scientific knowledge, are judged by the Food and Nutrition Board to be adequate to meet the known nutrient needs of practically all healthy persons.”  The key word here is “adequate.” What does adequate even mean? Also, who wants to be merely adequate in their health? Wouldn’t you rather be exceptional? Turns out, that for many nutrients, vitamin D for example, that quantities far above the RDA show a correlation with even greater health benefits. In fact the RDA for vitamin D is about 800 IU, while quantities as high as 5,000 IU have been shown to increase more dramatic health responses. 

Not only is the RDA falling tremendously short on the full benefit potential, but supplemental vitamin D is not the greatest source. The problem is that as it is digested in pill form, not all of the vitamin D is converted. The efficiency of conversion varies on an individual basis, but we know that it is not the most efficient means of synthesizing vitamin D. The best way would be via sunlight. Even 20 minutes in the sun can stimulate the production of up to 10,000 IU’s of vitamin D.  

There is of course a known risk of excess sunlight exposure, that namely being skin cancer. In order to receive the greatest benefit of sunlight exposure and minimize the risk, the time one needs to spend in the sun is really only about 10-20 minutes give or take based on location and how much melanin the individual in question has. This article is not to encourage you to go bake in the sun to make ourself healthy and happy. I would urge you to speak with a dermatologist, and to understand the strength of the UV radiation in your geography and your own susceptibility to risk before sunning. That being said, with the known benefits of sunlight in releasing endorphins, and in the production of vitamin D, a nutrient of vital importance; plus the inverse with the association of depression and many physical ailments connected to low levels of vitamin D, I encourage you to get some sunlight. Do so sparingly, as it doesn’t take much to get the full benefit but do enjoy some sun. Knowing what we do about happiness in places like Denmark for example, we know that sunlight isn’t everything, typically it’s the outlook and gratitude an individual has. Nevertheless, sufficient levels of sunlight ought to play trigger a physical and chemical response, allowing you to enjoy a greater sense of overall health and happiness. 

Sources: 

1. Mead, M. Nathaniel. Benefits of Sunligt: A Bright Spot for Human Health. Environ Health Perspect: April 2008, 116(4)

2. National Research Council (US) Subcommittee on the Tenth Edition of the Recommended Dietary Allowances.Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1989.

3.   Kent, Shia T, et al. Effect of sunlight exposure on cognitive function among depressed and non-depressed participants. Environ Health, 2009 8:34.

4 thoughts on “Praise the Sun! How Sun Exposure can Improve Happiness

  1. I have to say that I'm quite sensitive to the lack of sunlight. It affects my mood. Sometimes, on winter time I use a light therapy lamp and it helps. But it doesn't compensate for the lack of vitamin D. So I try to take a walk everyday even on very cold days for exposure to the sun, because as a melanin woman, I definitely need it. Thanks for sharing this post.Corinne

    Like

  2. Hi Corinne, I would imagine living in Canada that it can be difficult to get sunlight during the winter. Even I struggle some times and I live in the southern United States. Obviously we need to be careful of skin ailments but in moderate doses I think that sunlight is essential for good health and happiness. Truth is a vitamin D pill just doesn't work the same. Hope you enjoy some sunnier weather soon!

    Like

  3. I have to say that I'm quite sensitive to the lack of sunlight. It affects my mood. Sometimes, on winter time I use a light therapy lamp and it helps. But it doesn't compensate for the lack of vitamin D. So I try to take a walk everyday even on very cold days for exposure to the sun, because as a melanin woman, I definitely need it. Thanks for sharing this post.Corinne

    Like

  4. Hi Corinne, I would imagine living in Canada that it can be difficult to get sunlight during the winter. Even I struggle some times and I live in the southern United States. Obviously we need to be careful of skin ailments but in moderate doses I think that sunlight is essential for good health and happiness. Truth is a vitamin D pill just doesn't work the same. Hope you enjoy some sunnier weather soon!

    Like

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