Summer is in full swing and there is a lot of talk about how to be “safe in the sun.” I would like to turn the conversation around. Instead of talking about “safety,” I want to talk about optimizing our time in the sun. I do not think that we were made to constantly be thinking about safety. I do, however, think that we should wisely consider how to optimize our health.
So let’s talk about how to be wise in our time in the sun in order to optimize our physical and mental health.
Why in the past several decades have we started to fear sun exposure? Mainstream health care and television commercials seem to get a thrill out of telling people to reduce their sun exposure with the use of sunscreen, sunglasses, sunhats, makeup and daily facial lotion that have SPF coverage. Do you know what all of these things have in common? Some are downright toxic, some are fairly benign, but all block us from receiving many of the tremendous benefits the sun has to offer! The sun is a powerful source of health. Exposure to it is instrumental for anti-inflammation, cardiovascular health, musculoskeletal strength, strong neurological connections, hormonal health, happiness, the ability to rest and relax, steady sleep, reduced risk of cancer (yes, you read that correctly), and assistance in healing the gut and detoxifying. It is not something to be feared, it is something to be utilized!
Increase the amount of healthy fats you consume, especially pre- and post- sun exposure. While I often recommend increasing dietary fat for patients who come to see me, it is especially important in certain times of the year. One of those times is when sun exposure is likely. Having appropriate levels of animal fats (especially those high in cholesterol) will help the body be able to convert sun rays to usable vitamin D more effectively, and it will help preserve the skin from burning! Many people (myself included) have found that when they increase their dietary fats, they no longer burn every time they are in the sun like they did when they were younger!
Go out in the sun when it is direct. In order to convert sunlight into vitamin D, the rays have to be at the correct angle. A good rule of thumb is to check your shadow: if your shadow is shorter than your body, the sun is direct enough!
Start low, go slow. If you are not used to spending long periods of time in the sun, it is important to pace yourself. While sunlight brings health and happiness, it is also extremely powerful and we need to be aware of its potency. Too much time in the sun can cause burning, dehydration, induce a fever and intensify detoxification. Similar to spending time in a sauna, the sun causes antimicrobial effects and intensifies detox. While this is good, it is not always beneficial to detox heavily, as it causes increased stress on the body. This brings us to the next point.
Listen to your body. It is important to learn how to read your body’s cues in order to manage your amount of sun exposure. One of my jobs as a practitioner is to help my patients understand the language of their bodies so that they can know what their bodies need. Your body will tell you when you need more sun or when you need less. If you are starting to feel nauseated, lightheaded, thirsty, beginning a headache, these can all be signs of detoxification. Listen to these cues and allow your body to detox gently by removing yourself from the sun, drinking water or a healthy electrolyte drink (like this one or this one), and letting your body relax.
Hydrate. This one seems obvious, but it can be hard to remember to drink enough water! Always have water with you when you are in the sun, whether you are relaxing or exerting yourself. Do not wait until you are feeling symptoms of dehydration. Hydrate up from the very beginning!
After sweating in the sun, give yourself about 30 minutes before showering off or wiping off the sweat. It takes a little while for the UV rays to penetrate your skin in order to convert to vitamin D, and showering off immediately will result in less vitamin D absorption.
Allow as much of your skin to be exposed to the sun without barriers. This means without sunscreen and without clothing! Just remember #3, start low and go slow!
When dealing with kids, always make sure they are hydrated, eating enough fats before and after sun exposure, and are getting enough breaks from the direct sunlight so they do not burn and experience severe detox. Often they are having so much fun in the sun that they are not listening to their bodies’ cues! But remember, they are still like adults – in order to reap many of the benefits of the sun, they must not have barriers such as sunscreen and too much clothing between the sun and their skin.
Utilize the sun to help with sleep and emotions, whether with yourself or with your kids! If you are feeling gloomy or the kids are whining a lot, expose yourselves to natural sunlight. If you are wanting to establish sleep patterns, be out in the sunlight and let your lights fade with the sun – when dusk hits, try keeping the lights in the house to a minimum to try to keep on track with the sun. This will help your body get into healthy sleep hormone cycles.
Now, all of this sounds great for the summer, but what happens when the days shorten and the weather turns cold? What about when sunlight is not direct enough to convert into vitamin D? When the seasons turn, there is still hope!
Many of the benefits of the sun are because of the vitamin D that our bodies are able to create because of the sun rays. Unfortunately, because of the complex process that our bodies go through in order to convert sun into usable vitamin D, supplements are rarely effective (yes, even the D3 that is supposed to be so good), since they bypass various aspects of the conversion processes. The good news is that we can still get vitamin D through food! The best sources are: grassfed butter, cream, and raw milk, cod liver oil, wild caught salmon and pastured egg yolks: all foods that got vitamin D from the sun! If you can consistently consume these foods, you should be able to maintain your vitamin D levels through the darker months.
In addition to the foods mentioned above, saunas are often great options for helping with immune/detox support especially through the winter months. Of course, make sure that for your unique body and history that this would be appropriate for you before getting into one. Finally, even in the winter, still engaging with sunlight as you can, not wearing sunglasses and trying to follow the rhythm of the sun can be very helpful with sleep and emotions.
In conclusion, have fun in the sun and do not fear it. Be wise regarding how long you are in the sun, listen to your body, allow the sun to penetrate your skin, and nourish well.
Have a happy, wise, optimal summer!