The Power of Sunlight: The Most Profound Tool In the Toolbox of Health
How to biohack the sun: natures most powerful energy source
Contrary to popular belief, sunlight is an essential component of optimal health. In today's society, many people are told to lather on sunscreen the moment they step outside, spend less time outdoors to avoid the risk of skin cancer, and “replace” the sun's benefits with vitamin D supplements. However, these misconceptions overlook the plethora of positive effects sunlight has on the body. Sunlight helps regulate our circadian rhythm, lowers our risk of all cause mortality, increases our bodies ability to produce ATP, boosts serotonin levels, and aids in the production of melatonin. In this article, I will discuss why incorporating more sunlight into our lives can have a dramatic impact on our overall wellbeing.
The Sun is Not Your Enemy!
Its peak summer in America and you’re at the beach; you notice everyone is drenched in sunscreen, under umbrellas, wearing long sleeve shirts, and overall looking pretty pale. We all know that image of modern-day beaches in America, and it can be a disheartening sight. Poor diets, sedentary lifestyles, and other pitfalls associated with poor health in modernity are all contributing factors, but the lack of sun exposure is certainly one of the most prominent. Instinctively, pale skin is a commonality that comes to mind when we think of an unhealthy person, even without knowing the science of why UNNATURALLY pale skin can be a sign of poor health. (Relax, I used to be pale and irish before I met the sun). So why is this notion engrained in our brains?
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Since Adam and Eve, humans have been soaking in rays from the moment they woke up to the moment they went to bed. Modern-day hunter-gatherer tribes in Africa and South America get constant sun exposure, only seeking shelter during peak UV thresholds. Wild animals spend their entire days outside under sunlight, and every plant in the world thrives off of it. The point is, sunlight has been with us from the beginning and everything in nature revolves around it. The sun is metaphorically and literally the center of our universe; without it, nothing would be able to exist. This is why, when we break mother natures laws and don’t get sufficient means of sun, disease and death ravage our bodies.
Sunlight and All Cause Mortality
It is no surprise then, that sunlight is one of few remedies that can reduce all-cause mortality. When you get less sun, there is a higher chance of dying from an array of issues, everything from cancers to cardiovascular issues and inflammatory conditions, and so on. A study that followed 29,518 women over a 20 year long period and “obtained detailed information at baseline on their sun exposure habits”, it concluded that “the mortality rate amongst avoiders of sun exposure was approximately twofold higher compared with the highest sun exposure group”. While this is an observation study, it communicates volumes, especially with a cohort that large.
Vitamin D, which is really an endogenous hormone, is a major reason for such findings. Low levels of vitamin D are conclusive with about every modern day illness. Cancer patients are distinctly low in vitamin D. A PubMed database search found 63 observational studies of vitamin D status in relation to cancer risk, including 30 of colon, 13 of breast, 26 of prostate, and 7 of ovarian cancer. Additionally, inadequate vitamin D intake and/or environmental factors (e.g. insufficient sunlight exposure in high-latitude regions or during the cold season) may contribute to the onset and progression of autoimmunity. Another study found this was due to vitamin D’s ability to “regulate gene expression and… exert immunomodulatory effects on immune cells”. Maintaining normal gene expressions and a balanced immune system can be key in supporting ideal inflammatory levels.
Inflammation is easily one of the contributors in all modern day ailments, especially conditions like atherosclerosis (plugging of the arteries), which affects an estimated 50% of Americans. In this case, pro inflammatory cytokines begin building up in the heart and blood vessels, leading to blood flow constrictions and potential for clotting. With the popularity of myocarditis, blood clotting, and strokes associated with conditions like atherosclerosis, it is a shame sunlight is not mentioned more as a means to combat these issues. Research has demonstrated that UV light can have a considerable effect on atherosclerosis, particularly in terms of promoting T-regulatory cells and suppressing proatherogenic T-cells, effectively stunting the development and progression of atherosclerosis. Consequently, one is 57% more likely to experience a heart attack when their vitamin D serum levels are below the median levels. It is evident, that sunlight can be a powerful remedy when one is dealing with heart and cardiovascular related issues; however, its benefits span to so many other areas.
Sunlight is more than vitamin D!
You may be thinking: “Ok I will just supplement vitamin D and I am all set!”, not quite. Sunlight controls so many functions within the body, and its affects are far-reaching. In modernity, how many people suffer from depression and mental illness, and are prescribed SSRI’s in response? However, SSRI’s only ration the little serotonin remaining by preventing its reabsorption; sunlight, on the other hand, increases the production of serotonin. SAD (seasonal depression disorder) is a prime example of how lack of sunlight can negatively impact mental health. Those who suffer from SAD are markedly lower in serotonin in winter months compared to the brighter months. One study found that “the rate of production of serotonin by the brain was directly related to the prevailing duration of bright sunlight (r=0.294, p=0.010), and rose rapidly with increased luminosity”. Just ask yourself how much happier do you feel on a bright sunny day vs a cloudy drab day? Sadly, many don’t take advantage of this amazing benefit, even when it is sunny.
Fun Fact: serotonin converts to melatonin. Melatonin is the bodies most powerful defense against disease.
If you're in the health space of biohacking and ancestral health, you've likely heard of the microbiome. This complex system is a conglomerate of trillions of different bacteria, viruses, archaea, and microorganisms we don’t even know about yet, taking up residence on the skin and inside the gut. Not only do they help regulate your immune system, but they also play a role in how your DNA is expressed, yet the scope of the microbiome is so vast its hard to comprehend. Just as we need sunlight, so do those little critters in your body.
Studies of hunter-gatherer tribes have revealed their diverse and impressive microbiomes, largely due to the fact that they live near the equator under year-round UV light. The Yanomami hunter-gatherer tribe, of the Amazon rain forest, is a prime example: they do not wear sun-protective clothing and do not use sunscreen, yet they maintain immensely high levels of beneficial bacteria. Compared to Westerners, the microbiome of the Yanomami is unrecognizable; however, when compared to their African hunter-gather counter parts of similar latitudes, such as the Hazda, they share similar attributes.
“Ah, well, they all have similar diets!”. Yes, of course, as well as running barefoot in nature, getting constant exposure to the elements and grit, and doing things no Westerner does. However, if diet was the only factor, how would one explain how control groups exposed to UV light started exhibiting similar bacterial profiles as the hunter-gatherers? Furthermore, the Hazda’s microbiomes displayed notable comparisons according to seasonality, corresponding to how much UV light was present in their environment. The sun is the cornerstone of the diets of these people; they do not have the ability to buy bananas at Whole Foods in the middle of winter, so no matter what, the sun is center in developing a healthy microbiome.
Mitochondria are everything for a high performing cell. When unhealthy cells become bogged down with inflammation from reactive oxygen species, or when too little inflammation is present, the cell is weakened and unable to protect itself from external harm. Red light from the sun or a red light device have been studied for its ability to modulate this system.
Mitochondria contain chromophores, which are used to detect and absorb light. The specific chromophore, cytochrome c oxidase, can be activated by red light, increasing the mitochondrial membrane potential and reducing nitric oxide. Whenever unhealthy amounts of oxidation is reduced in the mitochondria, the electron chain transport is able to operate more efficiently, meaning ATP production is increased.
It is important to note that not all oxidation is bad; normal and healthy amounts are necessary to function properly. Inflammation is the bodies way of healing injury, which is why after we workout our inflammation levels are noticeably higher as the body begins healing the muscle tears from the workout. When a mitochondria is not producing enough oxidants, red light can up regulate the mitochondria’s ability to produce healthy amounts of inflammation, thus having a two-fold effect on its ability to handle inflammation. A study on red light found this concept to be true, stating that “it has been found that PBM can produce ROS in normal cells, but when used in oxidatively stressed cells or in animal models of disease, ROS levels are lowered. PBM is able to up-regulate anti-oxidant defenses and reduce oxidative stress”. Light is truly a powerful tool in modulating the mitochondria.
Sunlight is one of the easiest method of obtaining better health; it is free, it covers a multitude of bases and easily one of the most powerful tools out there. Sunlight is responsible for the production of vitamin D, which when deficient, has been correlated too many ailments such as cancer and atherosclerosis. Yet, sunlight is so much more than vitamin D, which in reality is a proxy of how much sun we are getting, as there are so many other positive affects sunlight has on the body. Sunlight is a means of raising serotonin levels: a powerful tool against mental health issues. We know sunlight has a microbiome modulating affect, after studying hunter-gatherer tribes in South America and Africa. Finally, sunlight aids in overall mitochondria health and promotes ATP production by protecting the electron chain transport from oxidative stressors. In conclusion, we should aim to get healthy amounts of sun whenever possible, after all you might just be a happier person!
Quick Tips (not medical advice duh)
Start your day with sunlight or red-light, red light helps prep the skin for UV light
Dont be stupid: if your just now getting into sun maxing, then take your time to build up your solar callous and try not to get burned
Sun from sunrise - 10am and 4pm - sunset is the best time
Try compounds like Astaxanthin to help buffer UV light (nice tan as well)
Take vitamin D if your deficient but remember vitamin D from sun is superior and sunlight is a million times more important than vit D alone (natural sources like cod liver oil are great)
Helpful links, Doctors and Podcasts
Dr Leeland Stillman
Dr Jack Kruse
Matt Blackburn of mitolife radio
Ben Greenfield podcast
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