Wow! It's been hot here in Wales...the sun has been out, we've slept with the windows open and I've been river swimming a few times.
I was brought up by a sun-worshiper. Mum loved it. Any chance she got, she was in the back garden soaking it up. We did know about sun cream, but I remember burning so badly after a day on a Welsh beach that my back shed layers of paper-fine flesh for weeks afterwards.
I had a sun-bed phase in Sunderland in the late 80s, along with an classic 80s perm and highlights we did at home using a swimming cap and a crochet hook ...you can imagine how good that all looked!
During my back-packing year, I was in hot countries for months and so instead of sun-cream, just covered up and sat in the shade and this, to some extent, is how my relationship with the sun has continued. I'm not an assiduous sun cream user and feel slightly naughty as I declare that, a bit like admitting to smoking (I don't). I know someone who uses suncream in winter and certainly my red-headed friends never leave home without it, but I live in farming country, and people are just out and about all day.
'You'll look old' warns the winter-sun-cream person. And I will, for sure, look older than someone who has never been in the sun in terms of my skin texture and tone. But sun makes me feel so good and having had the mother I had and looking at my farming family who are robust and healthy, I wanted to know more about the other effects of sun. Intuitively it didn't feel like the sun was my enemy and I wanted to find out more for the well-being days I am doing. Here's what I found.
The sun produces vitamin D in our skin and even if we take supplements, they do not work as effectively as what our bodies produce themselves. There has been a rise in cases of Vitamin D deficiency in children as fewer of them go outside and are exposed to sunlight, and extreme cases this is leading to the development of rickets, a disease which effects the strength and density of bone. In some places in America, and, closer to home, in Scotland, Vitamin D tablets are being prescribed to make up for the short fall. Why not prescribe time outside methinks? Even in winter we can get the sunlight we need to produce Vitamin D, we just need to be outside for longer.
Serotonin and Mood
Serotonin is what makes us feel happy. People with depression tend to have lower levels of serotonin. We produce serotonin naturally from daylight. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is often treated with lamps which replicate sunlight.
Serotonin and stress
Because serotonin is one of our 'feel good' neuro-transmitters and as such counteracts stress hormones such as cortisol. Cortisol is a long term killer, flooding our body, hardening out arteries, leading to raised blood pressure, heart disease and strokes. So sunlight doesn't just make us feel happier, it also positively wards against stress-hormones and depression.
Research is showing that people in hospital recover more quickly if they are by a window, even better if they can go outside. The findings on this are so marked and strong that I've taken this really seriously and written it into my lasting powers of attorney for well-being.
Even outside of hospital, we heal better when we are exposed to sunlight. I know my nails are stronger in the summer and my skin is clearer. Also, increased cortisol levels lowers T-cell activity (which effects immunity) so having serotonin decrease cortisol therefore allows your T-cell count and therefore immunity and self-repair mechanisms to work optimally.
Serotonin also helps our wake/sleep cycles by making us feel not just happier, but also, more alert. which in turn helps us sleep better as when serotonin drops at the end of the day, melotonin kicks in and helps us sleep. If we aren't producing enough serotonin, this effects melotonin production which can inhibit our ability to fall asleep and sleep well. When we don't sleep, we can't function and long term, we die. There have been psychological experiments done on rats where their SCN (the part of the brain which controls sleep/wake patterns) was removed and the rats died, they just kept on going, without rest, until they dropped dead.
If we don't sleep, we tend to gain wait as sleep deprivation leads to poor appetite regulation which can lead to diabetes. Also, if we are not sleeping, we often turn to food to comfort us. Research show that the old saying about eating breakfast like a king, lunching like a prince and dining like a pauper is indeed good advice because food eaten earlier in the day has more time to digest.
Poor sleep quality also increases our risk of strokes and heart disease and bowel and digestive tract inflammation. 90% people with depression complain about sleep quality and it unclear if the depression causes the poor sleep or the poor sleep causes the depression.
Sleep is also when out brain builds new connections and strengthens old ones, embedding memories and formatting new neural pathways, no sleep leads to cognitive and and memory decline. Medical interns who didn’t sleep for 24 hour made 36% more serious errors and recent US statistics show that 42% of all road accidents are caused by sleep drivers. Chernobyl happened at 1.30am, the Three Mile Nuclear incident at 4am and the Exxon Valdez oil spill at midnight. Catastrophic incidents caused by lack of sleep.
This is my experience. If I have had a day in the sun (even overcast day light) I sleep better, I feel calmer, happier and less stressed. I can see that I have sun spots on the back of my hands like my grandma used to have, but I also know that I'm fit and healthy and stronger than I have ever been. I sleep well, eat well and feel positive (most of the time). I can't prove all of this is down to being outside as much as possible, but the recent research seems to strongly support what my mum knew, which is that sunlight really does not only make you feel good, but does you good. I even came across some research which asserted that sun avoidance threatens life expectancy.
So I'm not suggesting that we all rush out and burn our backs so that we shed dead skin like snakes as I did that summer in Wales, but I am suggesting that we really do need to get outside more to feel the sun on our skin and the wind in our hair. Our life-styles have changed so fast since I was that kid covered in (useless) calamine lotion. But we are mammals and out bodies have evolved to be outside in daylight, sunlight, moonshine, moving and breathing and interacting with our natural environment.
I'll take the wrinkles and the sun-spots for the bone health, cognitive function, good moods, healthy heart, reduced stress, great sleep and good digestion. Like my mum, I'm a sun worshiper...and I'm just off to walk the dogs and do some yoga outside before breakfast. Have a good day.
To celebrate summer I've put together a reduced cost coaching package especially for Psychologies readers. Follow the link to find out more about the August Coaching offer.
My new book 6 Steps to Relationship Recovery is out and on offer at £0.99 on Kindle (or free if you are on unlimited) and £5.50 for the paperback until the end of July. It's written for people at the end of a relationship but actually, there are loads of tools and exercises in there if you fancy taking stock of how you live and what you want in your life. Please leave reviews so that other people can find the book. Thank you.