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Can the Sun Make Us Happy?

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When I was a little girl addicted to playing with my Barbies inside the comfort of my own bedroom, my parents would always say things like “get outside and soak up the sun,” or “the sun will do you some good.”


Now that I’m older, I wonder, is the sun really good for us? How could it be good when so much research shows it’s bad?


I know all the statistics. I use sunscreen everyday, I stopped thinking oil was a necessity for tanning, and I reassessed my extreme hatred for tan lines (thus the frequent trips to the tanning salon.)


I know why the sun is bad for you, but in the nature of seeing some good in all things bad (a life lesson learned from my mom,) I wanted to find out what’s good about the sun and why—especially in the winter months—it can be considered a friend.


Vitamin D, Anyone?
Medically speaking, our main benefit from the sun is vitamin D. Our bodies need vitamin D to regulate the levels of calcium and phosphorus in our blood. Without this crucial vitamin, our bones can become thin and brittle. The easiest way to get vitamin D is to get regular sunlight.


Brad Schoch is a third-year Medical Student at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. Schoch says the sun is a critical part of this vitamin’s development, “Vitamin D is unique in that your body can produce it itself if exposed to the sun. Without the sun, your body is missing a link in the production line and cannot manufacture vitamin D.”


Research cited in the Harvard Medical School Health Guide shows that many people have low vitamin D levels, and those low levels have even been linked to multiple sclerosis and prostate cancer.


What’s more, vitamin D that is naturally produced is said to be better for you than supplements.


It doesn’t take long to get an appropriate amount of vitamin D if moderate sun exposure is part of your life.


The Happy Hormone
The same skin-damaging, ultraviolet rays that lead to skin cancer also help release endorphins, sometimes called “happy hormones,” into our bodies. Endorphins relieve pain, produce euphoria, and can give you sudden bursts of energy and a general feeling of pleasure. They also give us that euphoric feeling after sex or the energized feeling after working out. More endorphins please!


To further test the goodness of endorphins, researchers at Wake Forest University looked at frequent indoor tanners and what drew them to tanning beds. The study used two identical beds—one gave off UV rays and the other did not. Tanners were asked to use each one of the beds once a week and were allowed to choose between the two beds on their third session. Ninety-five percent of the tanners chose the bed with UV rays. When asked why, they all said it just made them feel good.


Turning Around the Winter Blues
Ever notice that it’s harder to get out of bed during those long winter months? Or maybe it’s harder to even get out of the house. You’re not alone if the change in seasons brings about mood changes as well.


An estimated 4 to 9 percent of the U.S. population suffers from what is called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.


SAD is a legitimate mental disorder that’s a form of clinical depression. Symptoms include mood swings and behavior changes associated with the seasons, a craving for carbohydrates, and weight and appetite changes. 


Other symptoms of SAD are the typical signs of depression: thoughts of helplessness, sleep changes, loss of energy, loss of interest in daily activities, and increased agitation.


One of the ways to treat SAD is through light therapy, which can include the sun.


Schoch says light therapy has been shown to provide some mood benefits. “These therapies are centered around replacing the UV rays the patient isn’t getting during winter months. Therapy is usually decreased as the summer months approach and the patient is exposed to more natural sun light.”


SAD does follow a pattern. Symptoms typically begin in the fall when the sunlight hours are shorter. It’s at its worst in January or February, and symptoms disappear in the spring.


But even the chilly wintertime sunless light can help ease the affects of SAD. If you find yourself feeling sluggish during those long winter days, try these tips to rejuvenate yourself:


  • Sit near windows when it’s possible.
  • Make fall and winter plans. Try out that new restaurant you’ve been eyeing, or browse the local shops you meant to hit all summer. Plan outings and get-togethers and stick to the plan.
  • Listen to yourself. If a short walk lifts your spirits, head out for a walk. If a great book gets you cozy, keep reading. You know yourself better than anyone else.


Geographically Speaking
When it comes to reaping the benefits of the sun, it matters where you live. Northern states tend to have more cases of seasonal depression. Alaska has a SAD rate of 9 percent, while Florida’s rate is only 1 percent.


Amber Firestone goes to college in San Diego, but studied in Sweden for a year. When she arrived, there were only three hours of daylight each day.


“The crazy thing about living in Sweden was realizing how much the sun affects your internal clock, mood, and ability to feel warmth. When I arrived, I was severely affected by the lack of sun,” Firestone says.


To deal with the lack of sunlight, she followed the locals’ lead.


“To combat the severe coldness and skin problems I did as the Swedish do and went to tanning beds to keep sane. After lying in a sun bed for ten minutes, I would feel the warmth seep down into my bones.”


Studies have also shown that people living in northern regions produce less vitamin D than those closer to the equator. And yet another study by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and colleagues in Norway shows a clear north-south gradient in the production of vitamin D.


The results show that Australians produce almost four times more vitamin D than people in the United Kingdom, and five times more vitamin D than Scandinavians. Doctors often recommend northerners supplement their diet with vitamin D.


Make the Most Out of Sunlight
With fall rolling in and shorter days creeping up on us, now is a good time to make the most of the sunlight we do have:


  • Let the light in! Open your blinds and curtains while you’re inside, and welcome the light into your home. Just because the days are getting shorter doesn’t mean we should retreat to our caves.
  • When the sun is out, take advantage of it. Even if it’s just a short walk or jog, enjoy at least a few minutes of sunshine each day. Of course, always remember the sunscreen and shades, even on overcast days. 
  • If it’s warm enough, eat your lunch outside. Depending on where you live, there may be either a lot of sun or virtually no sun, but if it’s a relatively nice day, enjoy it.


Whether it’s Vitamin D, endorphins, or just the warm feeling of the sun hitting our skin, it may do us all some good to start thinking of the sun as a friend, or at least a casual acquaintance.

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