At the end of a grey and cloudy week, many of us are finally being treated to a few spells of sunshine to kick off July. Although the weather may not be ideal for sunbathing (it’s still rather blustery out there), it’s a great excuse to get outside and enjoy some fresh air – especially after so long spent inside during the coronavirus lockdown.
Whether you fancy a socially-distanced picnic with friends or a walk along one of the UK’s quiet beaches, getting outside and spending time in the sunshine isn’t just a great way to spend your weekend – it’s good for our mental and physical health, too.
“While the detrimental effects of sun-exposure, such as skin cancer, burns and photo-ageing are widely known, there are also some lesser talked-about benefits of sunshine,” explains Dr Tatiana Lapa, GP and medical director of the Dr Tatiana Clinic.
“Sunshine is an important source of vitamin D. When exposed to sunlight, the skin produces vitamin D3, an important factor in bone strength, our sense of wellbeing and the treatment and prevention of many health problems. The major source of vitamin D for most adults and children is sunlight, as very few foods naturally contain the vitamin.”
This increased production of vitamin D3 is, Dr Lapa explains, the main reason why spending time in the sunshine can be so good for our health – but it’s not the only reason.
“Sunshine has been linked with reduced heart health risks – UVB is believed to lower blood pressure and thus reduce risk of heart disease,” she says. “This correlation is not entirely understood but is thought to be linked with an increased production of vitamin D3 nitric oxide, carbon monoxide, substance P and calcitonin, all of which are implicated in the softening and widening of blood vessels to help reduce blood pressure.”
According to Dr Lapa, exposure to sunshine can also improve bone strength, reduce our risks of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, reduce our risk of bowel cancer, and improve the function of our immune system.
Spending time in the sun is also good for our mental health – exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of a hormone called serotonin, which is associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel calm and focused.
“When skin is exposed to UVB light, it releases a molecule called beta-endorphin, a peptide that promotes a sense of wellbeing, relaxation and even pain relief,” Dr Lapa adds. “We also know that individuals who are deprived or sunshine can experience a sense of listlessness, a lack of energy, low mood and even depression.”
Of course, Dr Lapa points out, we need to be wary of spending time in the sun without taking action to mitigate it’s negative effects. To avoid putting your skin at risk, she says, you should wear SPF daily (you should be doing this even when you’re sat inside, anyway) and avoiding exposure to strong sunlight.
Once we’ve taken those protective steps, however, Dr Lapa suggests that spending time in the sunshine – whether we’re exercising or simply sitting in the garden or on a balcony – is a great way to mitigate the impact the coronavirus pandemic is having put on our mental health.