I took a week off from my practice to travel to Maui for some relaxation and rejuvenation of my own -- and to soak up some much-needed sunlight. Seattle winters are hard for me. The gray days and luke-cool temperatures tend to dampen my spirits, and I have to work very hard to ward off depression. Today is our seventh full day here, and I must say that being here has certainly given me a much needed energetic boost.
When lying on the beach in the sun yesterday, my partner said to me, "It looks like you are re-charging your batteries in the sun. Superman does that, too." His comment made a great deal of sense to me, and I resonated with feeling that somehow the sunlight was penetrating me to the core. Yes, I thought, I will return to Seattle, with a bit of the Energizer Bunny in me. I will make it through the rainy days of spring and into the blue-sky days of summer.
All of this contemplating the healing power of sunlight caused some curiosity in me. After all, I've been told for years to "avoid the sun." Certainly the risk of skin cancer is a serious issue; I know many who have their yearly skin check-up and mole removal ceremony. But, I've been wondering, what is this deep yearning -- almost a physical craving -- I've been having for the sun? When trade winds blow through the island and reveal the sun through the clouds, why do I feel an instant "lift"? Why do I seem to having a more hopeful outlook on life when I see blue sky? And, why do I feel physically healthier and more vibrant when I've had a little dose of sunlight? Is there any scientific (or even anecdotal) reason for this?
In a New York Times article, Jane E. Brody asks this provocative question: "Can sunshine, now shunned by so many who fear skin cancer and wrinkles, save many more lives than it harms?"
She looks for answers in the work of Dr. Michael F. Holick, a professor of medicine, dermatology, physiology and biophysics at the Boston University School of Medicine. Brody writes that according to Holick, "relatively brief but unfettered exposure to sunshine or its equivalent several times a week can help to ward off a host of debilitating and sometimes deadly diseases, including osteoporosis, hypertension, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, depression and cancers of the colon, prostate and breast."
The key to the healing power of sunlight, Dr. Holick explains, has to do with vitamin D production, which most notably, helps with bone health. But, Dr. Holick also exposes some other health benefits from the sunshine I had no idea about. Brody writes that Holick "has found that exposing people with high blood pressure to UVB rays in a tanning salon lowers their blood pressure readings about as much as a drug will. He also found that increasing vitamin D improved the heart's pumping ability and reduced cardiac strain."
Now, what of this "mood lift" that we all feel so clearly when the sun shines?
A 2002 study revealed in Pubmed highlights that immediate "boost" we often get when the sun shines.
Here is an excerpt from the The College of Family Physicians of Canada regarding this study:
"The study reports that levels of serotonin in the brains of participants increased in direct relationship to their exposure to sunlight. Catheters placed in the internal jugular veins of participants allowed assessments to be done as these people were exposed to varying degrees of sunlight. The study found that 'the rate of production of serotonin by the brain was directly related to the prevailing duration of bright sunlight, and rose rapidly with increased luminosity.'"Ah-ha! It's that elusive serotonin again! As I sit on the beach on beautiful Napili Bay, I don't need a catheter in my jugular to tell me that something powerful is happening with me...but it's good to know that on a cellular level my body is processing this sunlight for me. And, perhaps when I return to the 50-degree weather of Seattle, I will be able to retain "sunshine on the inside." Wish me luck!