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Sunshine is the Best Disinfectant

Young woman on field under sunset lightWe evolved as outdoor creatures who were exposed to the sun on a daily basis, so it makes sense that some sun exposure is good for us.
A study from the Journal of Internal Medicine correlated the health of 30,000 Swedish women with risk of death over a 20-year period. The researchers found that the risk of death from all causes doubled for the Swedish women who tended to avoid the sun compared to women who got the most sun. This was a dose-dependent benefit, meaning that the more sun exposure a woman got on a regular basis, the lower her risk of death during the two decades-long study.
This sunshine-related health benefit remained significant even after the study authors adjusted the data for income, obesity, tobacco use, and exercise. According to this study, completely avoiding the sun might increase your risk of premature mortality as much being a pack-a-day cigarette smoker.
The idea that sunlight is good for our immunity and our hearts makes a lot of sense. Both in the United States and in Europe, deaths from infections and heart disease peak in winter and bottom-out in summer, and the swing is not subtle. The benefit may be in part due to vitamin D, but there are other factors at play. Studies have shown sun exposure on the skin triggers the release of large quantities of nitric oxide in the blood, which lowers blood pressure and improves immunity. Sunlight also leads to boosts in the levels of serotonin, which brightens mood and prevents depression.
If you’re blonde haired and blue-eyed with northern European ancestry, it doesn’t make sense to go lie out for hours in the Miami sun. Evolutionarily, it’s not something your skin was designed to deal with.
But all of us need some sun. To hide inside like a mole shunning all sun exposure is a recipe for sadness and poor health, particularly during the Coronavirus pandemic. The benefits of getting a modest daily dose of non-burning sunshine far outweigh the skin cancer risks. And to mitigate the aging and skin cancer risks, put sunscreen on your face, neck, shoulders, and hands.
It’s Amazing Out There
While it’s important to stay home, you don’t need to stay indoors. In fact, take this as “Doctor’s Orders.” Get outside multiple times every day to get some exercise and breathe in the fresh, clean spring air.
One silver lining of this pandemic is that air and water quality are suddenly better than they’ve been in decades. Another unexpected advantage is that as devastating as the arrival of the Coronavirus tsunami is, it’s coinciding with the blossoming of springtime—the most exhilarating and rejuvenating season. If you want to bolster your immune defenses, brighten your mood, and raise your vitamin D levels, get some sun on your skin. Not enough to burn, but enough to bask in the warmth.
Gardening is one of the very best things you can do to save yourself and the world right now. This morning, I got up with the sun and went outside with Frances, my French bulldog. While I was pulling weeds and trimming the bushes, Francie was digging in the dirt.
Your microbiome is the collection of microorganisms on and inside you; and it is a fundamental component of a powerful immune system. Getting intimate with the soil is one of the best ways to diversify and reinforce your microbiome. There is nowhere in the country that is prettier than Kansas City in the springtime, and it’s the best season for working in the yard. It’s never been more important to spend some quality time with your green friends outdoors.
In Good Health,
James O'Keefe, MD