We’ve already talked about the health benefits of breathing fresh air in another post (which you can read here). Among others, they include cleaner lungs, improved mood, and faster healing times.
But as it turns out, clean air is not the only wellness benefit you can reap from heading to the great outdoors; a new study published in the British Journal of Dermatology reported that increased exposure to sunlight could protect against severe COVID-19 and COVID death, serving as a potentially free and straightforward public health intervention against the virus.
Nothing wrong with a little sunlight
When we think of the sun, the mind instantly jumps to a laundry list of damaging effects, particularly those that happen after spending too much time under it. And yes, there’s no getting around the fact that sunlight can be harmful to your health: extreme exposure to the sun’s UV (ultraviolet) rays can damage your eyes, skin, and even immune system. This is why to protect yourself against its harmful consequences, it’s important to limit your exposure and cover your skin with sunscreen and protective clothing.
But despite its drawbacks, we humans actually need a few hours of sunlight each day, much like nearly every other living being on the planet, to grow and metabolize energy. This could be one of the many reasons why sunbathing therapy, aka limited and strategic exposure to the sun, has been around for thousands of years, as far back as ancient Greece. Light therapy, which comes in a broad selection of colors and wavelengths, is thought to promote sleep, improve migraines, boost cell reparation, and so much more.
We are wired to be in the sun
Though there are still loads we need to learn about COVID-19, experts know that temperature, seasonality, UV radiation, and humidity are closely linked to several respiratory viruses. One example is flu season, which in the U.S. begins around October and reaches its peak during February and March.
Contrary to the belief of millions of moms and grandmas all around the world, you can’t catch a cold or the flu from going out in the cold without a coat or with wet hair. So it’s not really the cold temperatures making the virus stronger or more transmissible. Instead, studies show that the influenza virus is more common during the winter because people are more likely to stay indoors, breathing in the same air as someone who might have the virus and receiving significantly less sunlight.
To see if the same proved true with COVID-19, investigators from the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, analyzed all recorded COVID-19 deaths in the U.S from January to April 2020 and compared them with UV levels of nearly 2,500 counties during the same period. The study controlled for factors known to be associated with an increased likelihood of severe COVID, including age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
The results of the analysis showed that sunnier regions of the country had lower COVID death rates compared to places with lower levels of UV rays — i.e., cloudier areas. Interestingly, the risk reduction couldn’t be explained by higher levels of vitamin D (regions with UV levels that were too low to produce significant levels of vitamin D in the body were excluded). Vitamin D is also known as the “sunshine vitamin” because it’s produced in your skin as a result of sunlight exposure. However, the outcomes of the present study suggest that sun exposure itself, regardless of vitamin D status, might also provide some protection against severe COVID-19.
One theory that might explain the lower death rates is that sunlight exposure triggers the release nitric oxide, a naturally-occurring molecule that promotes circulation and lowers blood pressure (a limited ability to produce nitric oxide is linked to heart disease and other chronic conditions). In fact, in preliminary studies, nitric oxide has shown promise as a potential treatment for severe COVID-19.
Naturally, since the study was observational and only took into account retrospective data, more evidence is needed to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between sunlight and decreased COVID risk, if one does actually exist. Still, the researchers carried out similar analyses in Italy and England and the results were strikingly similar, making the findings all the more compelling.
How to get more sun (safely)
It’s entirely possible to soak in some much-needed sunlight without harming your skin or health, but you do need to take some precautions before you head out to your next sunbathing session:
- Time of day: avoid being outside when the sun rays are strongest, between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm.
- Sunscreen: you already know this, but it’s worth repeating – always wear sunscreen, regardless of whether it is cloudy or if you’re only going to be in the sun for a few minutes. And remember to reapply every two hours or after coming out of the water.
- Duration: the length of exposure matters as well. In the summer, aim for 15-20 minutes of unshaded sun exposure, tops. In the winter, you can hang around in a sunny spot for about 30 minutes.
- Shade and protection: have sunglasses, protective clothing, a hat, and some sort of shading – like an umbrella or a tree – nearby to protect your eyes and skin.
- Water: drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration and heat strokes.
A final word
While excessive sunlight exposure can harm your health, humans need some degree of natural light exposure to avoid disease and promote healthy functioning. Avoid basking in the sun when it’s at its strongest, and make sure you are well-protected by wearing sunblock and long-sleeved clothing. Reapply every couple of hours or whenever you take a dip in the water and drink plenty of water to ward off heat exhaustion, but don’t avoid the sun altogether; after all, it is that big, bright, ball of fire that’s keeping us alive above everything else.
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