“Just think of the illimitable abundance and the marvelous loveliness of light…” —St. Augustine, City of God
The sun has gotten a bad rap; granted too much of it can cause sunburn and trigger those early signs of aging (wrinkles, sunspots, and sagging of the skin), but in its essence, the sun and the light (and heat) that it gives off are central to our existence—and to our health.
Sunlight can improve mood. There’s no doubt about it, a little bit of sunshine can make a world of difference in our mood. When it’s dreary and dark, we can feel depressed and lethargic; when it’s a beautiful, sunlit day, we’re happier and more energetic. This mood change isn’t only in our imagination. When light enters the eye, it stimulates neurons in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that influences mood. These nerve impulses travel to the pineal gland, which regulates serotonin, the so-called feel-good hormone that’s linked to mood. On the other hand, when it’s dark, the pineal gland secretes melatonin, a hormone that controls sleep patterns by causing drowsiness.
Sunshine may prevent us from eating too much. The same part of the brain responsible for mood is also responsible for appetite. A recent study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences showed that eating in a dimly lit or dark environment may trigger us to eat more. “Darkness provides a high-risk environment for binge-eating for certain people,” says study author Joseph Kasof, who adds that those people who eat in a darkened room may find they lose their inhibitions against eating. The bottom line: Eat in a well-lit environment and avoid eating late at night.
Sunlight helps stimulate the body’s production of vitamin D. When the skin is exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, a cholesterol compound in the skin is transformed into a precursor of vitamin D. This fat-soluble vitamin is required for the absorption of calcium by the body. It’s also necessary for growth and protects against muscle weakness. But that doesn’t mean you should sit out in the sun all day; exposing your face and arms to the sun for fifteen minutes, three days a week is an effective way to ensure adequate amounts of vitamin D in the body.
Sun can help clear up skin conditions like psoriasis. The itchy, scaly, raised patches of skin that characterize psoriasis can be cleared up by ultraviolet light—that’s why, in general, exposing the skin to sunlight for about thirty minutes a day is recommended for those with psoriasis. (This treatment is effective for about eighty percent of people with this skin condition, who typically notice improvement within three to six weeks of starting sunlight therapy.)
Sunshine may help maintain the efficiency of the human eye. According to R. S. Agarwal, author of Yoga of Perfect Sight, “the human eye needs light in order to maintain its efficiency. Sunlight is as necessary to the normal eye as are rest and relaxation.” Agarwal’s suggestion: Start the day by exposing the eyes to the sun for just a few minutes with this treatment: sit comfortably facing the sun (morning or evening when the sun isn’t as strong) with closed eyes, and sway the body from side to side gently. Continue for five to ten minutes. Then come into the shade and wash the eyes with cold water.
Don’t get overheated. “During the summer, the strong sun evaporates the moisture of the earth,” explain authors Gopi Warrier and Deepika Gunawant, M.D., in The Complete Illustrated Guide to Ayurveda (Element Books, 1997). That’s why sweet, cold liquids and foods are important. Avoid excessive outdoor physical exercise, hot and dehydrating foods, and foods with pungent, acid tastes (particularly if you’re a pitta type). And drink plenty of water (at least nine eight-ounce glasses daily).
Treat a burn. If you get too much sun, try these cooling suggestions from herbal beauty expert Stephanie Tourles, author of The Herbal Body Book (Storey Communications, 1994): Add two cups of apple cider vinegar to cool bathwater and soak for ten to twenty minutes; apply cold aloe vera gel directly to a sunburn several times per day or apply cold, strong, black tea directly to sunburn with soaked cotton pads several times per day. Ayurvedic beauty expert Monica Bharadwaj, author of Beauty Secrets from India (Ulysses Press, 2000), suggests this easy recipe: Mix one cup of mashed cucumber with one teaspoon of glycerine (available from any healthfood store) and refrigerate until chilled. Apply to affected areas, and rinse off after half an hour.