What wonders lie just steps outside your front door?
Light! Air! People!
The health benefits of engaging with the great outdoors—or even the small outdoors, on a porch or backyard—are vast, and we could (and will!) talk about them for months to come.
But, let's start our discussion with natural light, also known as sunlight.
Over the past few decades, much emphasis has been placed on the risks of direct exposure to the sun's rays—specifically, increased rates of skin cancer and certain eye diseases. For the younger people, these messages are preventative and important. Indeed, we should stop roasting ourselves in the sun. (Do you remember putting on baby oil to “get a better tan”? That bill has come due for too many of us.)
But, public-health messaging, especially on the topic of skin cancer, has inadvertently turned our attention away from the very important role that exposure to sunlight plays in regulating good health.
First of all, sunlight activates our bodies to create Vitamin D, which is critical to our strength, energy, thinking, digestion, and weight control. (How’s that for a list?)
Yet, as Aging Care.com points out, a staggering 42 percent of American adults are Vitamin D-deficient, and the prevalence of this fundamental lack increases with age.
For many people, dietary Vitamin D is not sufficient—the rest must be generated by the body through skin exposure to natural light.
Because more older people have lower Vitamin D levels, they especially need direct contact with sunlight.
Secondly, the primary stress hormone, cortisol, is affected by sunlight. The body produces it to help regulate blood sugar, salt and water balance. It can affect blood pressure and the inflammatory response. Cortisol varies during each day, during the life cycle, and the body can generate high levels in threatening situations or in certain disease states.
Cortisol, in chronically high levels, can worsen anxiety, depression, digestive problems, and weight gain. It can also lead to headaches, muscle tension and sleep problems; increase the risk of heart disease and stroke; and affect memory and concentration. (Check out this article from Scientific American for more information)
So how can we keep our cortisol levels in check?
You guessed it! Light plays a role. Medical literature suggests a relationship between bright light and appropriate cortisol levels.
There is also particularly interesting research from a study on people living in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, where extremes of daylight exposure occur. In summer, the days (and sunlight hours) are nearly endless, and in winter, the opposite is true. People living in these periods of seasonal lightness and darkness report having higher occurrences of poor sleep, digestion and mood.
The results of this research can be extrapolated to those of us who live in temperate, zones as well.
I could go on. But it has stopped raining, and I’m ready to take a walk outside.
Yours in health,