Spring officially starts next Monday, March 20. For those of us with the winter blues, this is a cause for celebration. After all, sunlight offers some significant benefits to our emotional and physical health. However, too much sunlight can increase the risk of skin cancer. In this blog, we examine sunlight’s effects on our health and how we can enjoy it in a healthy way.

Bright Sun, Bright Mood

Americans love the sun. Research from Harvard and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston demonstrates that sunlight played a significant role in shaping the population growth of US cities between 1920 and 2000. From a medical perspective, this trend has roots in our bodies’ chemistry—our affinity for sunshine is linked to its effects on our brain’s production of the hormone serotonin.

Serotonin is largely responsible for regulating mood, appetite, digestion and sleep. It helps create feelings of calmness and focus. Sunlight cues special areas in the eye’s retina, triggering the release of this hormone. Research shows that the brain produces more serotonin on sunny days than on darker days.

A serotonin deficiency can result in depression, increased anxiety, digestive troubles and irregular sleep patterns. Doctors have linked low serotonin levels to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression triggered by changing seasons and less exposure to natural light.

The Sunshine Vitamin

In addition to helping our disposition, sunlight also contributes to the strength of our bones. Ultraviolet-B radiation in the sun’s rays triggers the skin to produce Vitamin D. Also known as the “sunshine vitamin”, it is primarily responsible for increasing the body’s absorption of calcium from the foods we consume. Experts have linked low Vitamin D levels with rickets in children and with osteoporosis, a bone-wasting disease that affects millions of Americans.

Typical symptoms of Vitamin D deficiency include bone pain, frequent bone fractures, unexplainable fatigue and even difficulty thinking clearly. A doctor can help identify and address a potential deficiency.

Staying Healthy in the Sun

While natural sunlight has its benefits, overexposure can increase the risk of developing skin cancer. The sun’s UV rays can damage the DNA of skin cells, causing harmful mutations. Here are our top five tips to remember when heading out for some fun in the sun:

  • The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Time spent outside during this period can increase the risk of sunburn.
  • The World Health Organization has found that 5 – 15 minutes of sunlight two or three times a week is enough to stimulate the sun’s Vitamin D-boosting effects.
  • If you are going to be in the sun for over 15 minutes, wear sunscreen with a minimum protection factor of 15.