RAYS OF GOODNESS Sunshine benefits bone growth, muscle relaxation, mitochondrial health, mood and even life expectancy.
Sunshine; finally we seem to be get a bit, and warmth with it.
I find the attitude to sunshine in Ireland interesting. We can go for months barely seeing it, then when it comes there are – if you’ll pardon the pun – two polar reactions to it. The traditional response is to strip off as many layers as possible and soak it up, but in the 15 years since I moved to Ireland I’ve noticed an increasing caution and avoidance of the sun. Which begs the question, what is the right approach?
As with almost every question like that, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. The sun is vital for life. Without it there would be no life on Earth; there would be no seasons, it would be too cold for plants to grow, rain wouldn’t fall. As can be seen from the other planets in our solar system, you need to be just the right distance away from the sun for life to exist.
Vitamin D and red light
What does the sun do for us as humans? The most obvious benefit is sight. In low light, we can see a bit, but not very well by comparison to nocturnal creatures, but our eyes are very good at adapting to various levels of brightness during the day – think of walking through a shady park as an example.
The unseen (but more important from a long-term health perspective) benefits are the effects of vitamin D and red light.
As far back as ancient times, the Greeks were aware of the health benefits of sunlight, the city of Heliopolis was home to healing temples and gave root to the term ‘heliotherapy’ or sunbathing. Heliotherapy became an important treatment for tuberculosis, rickets and war wounds from the late 1800s, reaching a peak in the 1920s and 30s. The most widely used approach was the Rollier method, which advocated progressively exposing the body to the early morning sun over eight to ten days.
In the early morning and late evening, UV radiation is scattered or removed from sunlight, giving the light an orange-red hue. As the sun gets higher, this scattering effect decreases and the concentration of UV light is increased. Red light stimulates the production of an enzyme in the body’s mitochondria that reacts with oxygen to produce chemical respiration – in short it helps the body break down glucose to produce energy. This is particularly significant when considering the ‘diseases of civilisation’, such as diabetes, heart disease and many cancers; all of which are linked to mitochondrial dysfunction.
At the other end of the colour spectrum, UV light is an important stimulator of vitamin D production, which in turn regulates calcium balance in bones and muscles. We all know that inadequate calcium in bones causes osteoporosis. But did you know calcium balance is vital for muscle contraction and relaxation, and thus related to muscle pain and fibromyalgia. If the ‘calcium switch’ in a muscle is broken, the muscle can’t relax and remains under constant tension, eventually becoming hypersensitive and painful.
In the world we live in today, the assumption is that if you don’t get enough of something, you can just take a supplement, and that can work to an extent. But considering that it is possible to get 90 percent of your vitamin D from the sun, it is possible to take a cheaper approach. The challenge in places like Ireland is simply getting enough, especially if you have darker skin.
A 2016 paper in the Journal of Internal Medicine by researchers in Sweden found that nonsmokers who avoided the sun had a similar life expectancy to smokers who didn’t, and that those who didn’t smoke and spent more time in the sun had a longer life expectancy.
Interestingly, while they found that there was an increased risk of skin cancer, the prognosis for those people who exposed themselves to the sun tended to be better. Their conclusion states that avoiding the sun is therefore ‘a risk factor for death of a similar magnitude as smoking’.
What conclusions can be drawn from all of this? Firstly, the sun is good for you – especially in the early morning and evening – it stimulates bone growth, muscle relaxation and mitochondrial health, helps you live longer and generally lifts your mood.
Should you be out in it all day every day without some protection? No, especially in the middle hours of the day. As the old saying goes, ‘between 11 and 3, get under a tree’.
Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.