Nature’s Healer: The Sun

By Robert M. Oliva, CSW

The sun has always been seen as the source of life and healing. We must not forget the many benefits the sun bestows on us. It is nature’s healer.

Sunlight

Throughout history there has been no better and more common symbol of happiness and well being than the sun. The ancient Egyptians, the Aztecs, Romans and Greeks all worshipped the sun and thought of it as the source of life and health. Regardless of the historical time that comes to mind, you will find people cheered and uplifted by the life-giving rays of the sun.

Whether it was in the form of the god Helios or establishing Sun-day as the first day of the week, the sun always has played an important role in people’s lives.

The great Greek physician Hippocrates wrote extensively about the sun’s healing powers. Herodotus, the father of Heliotherapy, made frequent statements about the healing properties of the sun in his medical practice. In our own time, we see a reflection of these ancient sentiments in songs, poems and movies. And who of us could deny the feeling we have when the sun breaks through the darkened clouds: our mood lifts; our eyes turn upward; our energy and zest for life returns.

Although there have been many serious medical warnings about overexposure to the sun in recent years, we must not neglect the positive role sunlight plays in our mental and physical health. There is good news coming from scientific research telling us why we look and feel better from the sun.

The Blues

Sunlight is an important part of our daily lives. Ever notice how much time is spent at the office worrying about who gets the office with the window. And what about all that energy you feel when spring and summer come around. Everyone seems to be outdoors, planning hikes, barbecues and pool parties. You name it and it’s happening.

Tom Wehr, M.D., a research psychiatrist at the National Institutes of Health, is an expert in mood disorders and feels that our elevation in mood during the spring and summer can be directly linked to the amount of sunlight we are exposed to. Researchers have found the exposure to natural light increases the production of serotonin, a chemical that stimulates the brain’s pleasure center, thereby perking up your mood while warding off anxiety and depression.

In contrast, look at what happens to people in the long winter months, especially those living in the Northeast and Northwest. Over 11 million people suffer from what is called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, and another 25 million suffer from a milder form of “winter blues.”

The symptoms of SAD and the “winter blues” can include fatigue, craving carbohydrates, irritability, sleeping more and a change of personality from your summer self to your winter self. It’s not exactly known what causes SAD, but according to health writer Francis FitzGerald, “SAD occurs year after year during a specific season,  usually the winter, and vanishes when spring ushers in longer days and more sunshine.”

Medical Researchers think that our depressed moods during the winter may be the result of a chemical imbalance between serotonin and melatonin. With too little sunlight, melatonin makes us drowsy, and disrupts our internal clock.

Our Bodies

Besides just making us feel better and more energetic, exposure to sunlight plays an important role in helping us create vitamin D in our bodies. What makes this so important? Vitamin D has been shown to help prevent and treat serious medical conditions, including: breast cancer, osteoporosis, prostate cancer, psoriasis, acne, etc.

Though many people aren’t aware of it, most of our physiological requirements for vitamin D are provided for by casual exposure to sunlight. It is easy to see how important sunlight is for our physical and mental health.

Breast Cancer

Over 180,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. It is a major concern for women of all ages. But there is hope. According to Judy Gaillard and Donald Smith of Sun Wellness magazine, a study by researcher Ester M. John at the Northern California Cancer Center, entitled “Vitamin D and Breast Cancer Risk”, casual exposure to sunlight, along with other factors, can help reduce the risk of breast cancer.

The scientists concluded “high exposure to sunlight was associated with a 25 percent to 65 percent reduction in breast cancer risk among women whose longest residence was in a state of high solar radiation.” A 25 percent reduction in the number of breast cancer cases would mean approximately 44,000 women would not have to suffer the trauma of this disease. Since vitamin D and sunlight exposure are life-style behaviors, this is good news for women wishing to reduce their risk of breast cancer.

Osteoporosis

Sometimes called “the silent disease,” osteoporosis is the loss of bone mass due to the malabsorption of calcium into the bone. Bone fragility results in increased risk of bone fracture in many parts of the body, including the hips, spinal vertebrae, and ribs. According to James F. Balch, M.D., author of Prescription for Nutritional Healing, fully “half of all women between the ages 45 and 75 show signs of osteoporosis.” Although osteoporosis is mostly an issue for post-menopausal women, both sexes and all age groups suffer from this disease.

“If vitamin D is absent, calcium, which is vital for normal bone growth and development, will not be absorbed from the intestinal tract and the bones become deformed,” says Zane Kime, M.D., M.S. in his book Sunlight. One of the best ways to get adequate vitamin D is moderate exposure to the sun. The World Health Organization Task-Force for Osteoporosis recently recommended sunlight as a part of the treatment and management of this disease.

Prostate Cancer

Prostate cancer is the second most common cause of death from cancer in men over age 75. In a recent study by Hanchette and Schwartz of the University of North Carolina and published in the journal Cancer, the researchers a 20 to 40 percent lower incidence of prostate cancer among men in southern climates. Because of findings like this some researcher are suggesting that vitamin D may be an effective preventive agent against prostate cancer. The importance of sunlight cannot be underestimated in maintaining prostate health. If the incidence of prostate cancer is reduced by 20 percent nearly 37,000 men would not suffer the anguish of this disease.

Athletic Achievement

Most of us believe that sunlight gives us extra pep and energy. During the summer months, we tend to sleep less, play more and just have more get up and go. To back up this idea scientifically, Bylle Dopps and Scott Hoover of Sun Wellness magazine looked at research from the Sports Medicine Department of the German National Olympic Team Training Center. The results of their research showed that routine exposure to the sun optimized performance capabilities and reduced the incidence and recovery time of athletes from minor injuries.

If simple sunlight can help world class athletes recover from the stresses of training and competition, it seems reasonable to conclude that we can all benefit from the stress busting affects of sunlight.

Conclusion

Recent scientific studies have demonstrated what humans have suspected all along: natural sunlight promotes feelings of well-being, improves immune function, promotes natural healing and optimizes athletic performance. Don’t neglect these positive benefits of sunlight. Include moderate exposure to the sun in your overall health regimen.

To learn more about health and healing go to my HealingAction web site at http://healingaction.com.

Robert M. Oliva, CSW is a certified New York State social worker with over twenty years experience in psychotherapy, stress management and wellness. Bob is an internationally known health writer and is the founder and editor-in-chief of the health site HealingAction.com. Presently, Bob is a doctoral candidate in naturopathy at Clayton College. He lives with his wife Mary and his two sons David and Chris on Long Island, New York. Bob also spends a few hours a week playing with his grandson Jonathan.

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