Most of us will agree that we feel much better when the sun shines – and there’s plenty of science to explain why. Research suggests that exposure to sunlight causes our brains to release the feel-good chemical, serotonin. It also allows our bodies to make more vitamin D, among other things.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at 10 positive effects of sunlight on our overall health, as well as how we can reap these benefits while staying safe.
1. Your body uses sunlight to create Vitamin D
Probably the largest benefit of sunlight is that it boosts our vitamin D levels and it’s estimated that 50% of the people across the world are affected by some level of deficiency. This can be due to various factors but a lack of vitamin D-rich foods and sunlight (as our bodies produce vitamin D when ultraviolet rays from the sun hit our skin) play a significant role.
We need vitamin D for a number of important bodily functions, including the absorption of calcium from the intestines. Research also suggests that it can strengthen bones and muscles, improve our immune system, and boost our mood and energy levels.
In the UK, from April until the end of September, it’s often possible to get enough vitamin D by spending time outside. Approximately 10-30 minutes of exposure to sunlight each day is enough for most people. However, if you have darker skin, you’ll likely need longer – as you’ll have more melanin, which affects the production of vitamin D.
Your exposure time will also depend on how sensitive your skin is. If you’re planning on staying in the sun for longer than 10-30 minutes, it’s best to apply sunscreen after this time.
However, in the winter months, our sunlight doesn’t contain enough UVB rays, so most of us won’t make sufficient vitamin D. Therefore, the NHS recommends that we consider taking supplements – though you can also try incorporating more vitamin D-rich foods into your diet, like mushrooms and tofu. To find out more about the benefits of vitamin D and how to make sure you’re getting enough, you can read our handy guide.
2. Sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of serotonin
In 2004, the University of Michigan did a study on how weather affects our mood and found that people who spent at least 30 minutes outside in nice weather felt happier. This is because exposure to sunlight can increase the brain’s release of a feel-good hormone called serotonin.
When sunlight passes through the retina (a thin layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye), it triggers the production of serotonin, which has been shown to improve mood and help us stay calm.
Many people experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – a type of depression – during certain seasons of the year. Though it can occur at any time, it’s most common in winter, and experts believe that this is due to the shorter days and lack of sunlight. You can read more about SAD on the NHS website here.
To maintain your serotonin levels, try to spend some time each day in natural light – even in the winter months, as this can have a profound effect on your mood.
3. We’re more likely to want to exercise outside when it’s sunny
During the sunnier and warmer months, people tend to be more proactive in their approach to outdoor exercise. This is likely due to an increase in serotonin levels (as well as the warmer weather of course!) because we tend to be more motivated when we’re in a good mood.
If this sounds familiar and you’re keen to make the most of the longer, sunnier days then why not try to up your step count and head out for more walks? As well as exposing you to more sunlight, walking can also promote the release of endorphins (feel-good chemicals), improve sleep, help you lose weight, and ease pain and stiffness, to name just a few benefits.
Aside from walking, yoga and Tai Chi are also empowering exercises to do outside as they involve movements that are closely linked to nature. You can learn both yoga and Tai Chi via online classes, meaning you can exercise anywhere!
There are also plenty of other ways to get active outdoors, such as running, cycling, surfing, horse riding, and open water swimming. Check out our fitness and exercise section for more. And if you’re someone who struggles to get outside once the days become cooler and darker, then you might find our winter motivation ideas helpful.
4. Sunnier days give us more excuses to spend time in gardens, parks, and other natural spaces
In the UK, we often jump at the chance to get out in the garden or to a nice park, common, or beach when the weather is nice. And, as well as exposing us to more sunlight, this also gives us plenty of opportunities to connect with nature, which is also beneficial for our health.
If you find that you don’t spend as much time outside as you would like and could use some inspiration, then gardening can be a good incentive if you’re lucky enough to have an outdoor space of your own. Or, if not, you could consider applying for an allotment.
5. Sunlight may lower the risk of developing metabolic syndrome
The NHS describes metabolic syndrome as ‘the medical term for a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), and obesity’. And, there have been studies in animals that show that sun exposure can help lower the risk of developing metabolic syndrome.
The studies have speculated that this might be because a particular wavelength in sunlight can go deep enough into the body to have an effect on certain types of adipose tissue that might help protect against metabolic syndrome.
6. Sunlight can inspire us to plan adventures
Lighter days can make anything feel possible so the spring and summer months, in particular, can be the perfect time to plan some adventures.
Here in the UK, you can visit National Trust properties or historic sites, or even go geocaching. If you’re a foodie, then our article here might give you some inspiration for cities in the UK you might want to visit. Or, why not look to plan a city break abroad?
Should you be interested in a more adventurous getaway, you could consider camping in a tent or campervan, or going on a walking or cycling holiday. Or if you’re a golfer or aspire to be one, check out one of the best golf courses in the UK.
For more ideas do take a look at our travel section which has plenty of suggestions for staycations, day trips, and places further afield to visit for your adventures.
7. Sunlight can boost creativity
Being outdoors can also enhance our creative skills. A University of Michigan study found that being outdoors in good weather can improve your memory and broaden your cognitive style, which is linked to more creative thoughts.
Matthew Keller, the post-doctoral researcher who led the psychology study says, “Being outside in pleasant weather really offers a way to reset your mindset.”
8. We often feel more sociable when it’s sunny
When the weather makes us feel good, we’re more likely to want to spend time with others. So, the summer can be the perfect time to get outside and really make the most of these social opportunities.
If you have a garden or know somewhere where you can have a barbecue, why not invite a group of friends and family for one and try out one or several of these delicious recipes?
Or, if you don’t enjoy hosting or don’t have a space to do so, why not suggest going for a walk, visiting an open-air cinema, or meeting for an al fresco lunch at a nearby cafe?
Spring and summer can also be a great time to make new connections if you’re out and about more. Our article, 11 ways to make new friends, has some ideas for ways you can do this.
9. Sunlight can help to regulate melatonin production and circadian rhythms
Our bodies work on 24-hour circadian rhythms and these are the cycles that tell us when to sleep, wake, and eat. The sleep-wake cycle is influenced by external cues, like sunlight, lack of sunlight, and temperature, and can decide whether we feel energised or exhausted at various times of the day.
At night, darker lighting triggers the brain to make the hormone, melatonin, which is responsible for helping you sleep. It‘s usually produced in the body in the evening when the sun goes down to get your body ready for sleep. Then, when you wake up to daylight, your body is entered into a state of alertness and prompted to stop producing melatonin.
Making sure we get enough sunlight can help to regulate melatonin production and circadian rhythms, to give us better quality sleep. You can read more about this in our article; Everything you need to know about melatonin and the circadian rhythm.
10. Sunlight may help to lower blood pressure
There’s an interesting article on the website of the British Journal of Family Medicine that talks about sunlight potentially lowering blood pressure. Experts suggest that this may happen when UV rays from the sun encourage the production of nitrogen oxides.
To read more about other natural ways to lower blood pressure, such as cutting back on caffeine, reducing your sodium intake, and losing weight, you can read our article here.
Staying safe in the sun
Though the benefits of sunlight have been well-documented, the sun’s UV rays can also be damaging if we have too much exposure. So, it’s important to find a balance and take precautions to protect ourselves where necessary.
- Remember that you can burn even when it’s cloudy – so you may still need to wear sunscreen to protect yourself if you’re outdoors for more than 10-30 minutes.
- Try to spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm between March and October in the UK, when the sun is strongest.
- Wear appropriate clothing if you’re going to be out in the sun for a long time. The NHS recommends a wide-brimmed hat that shades the face, neck, and ears; and trousers or a long skirt and a long-sleeved top in close-weave fabrics that don’t allow sunlight through.
- Use at least a factor 30 sunscreen and apply it every two hours. Always check to make sure it’s still in date (sunscreen usually has a long expiry date of two to three years). If it’s past its expiry date, dispose of it and replace it – otherwise, it won’t offer you any protection. Try not to spend any longer in the sun than necessary without sunscreen.
- Use a water-resistant sunscreen if you’re going to be spending time in the water or sweating heavily.
- Remember to protect your eyes by wearing sunglasses, as eyes can suffer a temporary painful burn on their surface, similar to sunburn. Looking directly at the sun can also cause permanent eye damage. Sunglasses should have wraparound lenses or wide arms if they’re to be fully effective, particularly if you’re outside for a long time.
Sunlight has many positive benefits for our mental and physical wellbeing all year-round – though it’s generally easier to reap these benefits in spring and summer when the days are lighter and warmer.
If you’d like to start spending more time outside, then our article 32 ways to connect with nature and feel inspired has plenty of ideas. These include taking pictures of wildlife, enjoying a meal outdoors, getting involved with conservation, and taking daily activities and hobbies outside.
However, it’s important to remember to protect our skin and our eyes when out in the sun if we’re to reap the full benefits that it has to offer.