At this point, the recommendations on sun exposure tend to sound like advice for new vampires: Avoid it all costs or perish.
But there's starting to be some pushback on that conventional wisdom. In a recent study, researchers noted that underexposure to sun carried significant risks, similar to smoking, obesity, and being sedentary. Other studies are noting sunshine's happy effect on mental health, better aging, and cardiovascular benefits.
These advantages come, in part, from the way that sunshine prompts production of vitamin D, a powerhouse when it comes to health rewards. But why not just pop a supplement to emulate that sunny feeling? Because it doesn't work as well, according to Michael Holick, M.D., director of the Heliotherapy, Light, and Skin Research Center at Boston University Medical Center.
"Humans have a lot of beneficial biological processes that occur as a direct result of sun exposure," he tells SELF. "You might see a few of those with vitamin D supplementation, but not to the degree that you do with simply being out in the sun."
Also, increased vitamin D isn't the only thing that sunshine triggers. How else can catching some rays improve your life? Let us count the ways:
1. Better mood
Sunlight trips the release of serotonin and endorphins, hormones associated with happier mood, less depression, and overall calm. "You'll notice immediately that you simply feel better," says Holick. "That's your whole system responding to sun.
2. Deeper sleep
Hello, better circadian rhythm. Getting sun exposure during the day—with all that yummy serotonin—also puts you on track for more effective production of melatonin, the hormone that helps sleep. Your body is more efficient at recognizing when it's evening after receiving some sunshine-fueled input during the day. One way to amp up this effect is by waiting at least a few minutes before putting on sunglasses. It's when sunlight hits the retina that production of serotonin begins.
3. Lower blood pressure
Anyone who's ever encountered terms like "cabana" or "swim-up bar" knows that sunshine-saturated days bring on feelings of relaxation, but it turns out that the process is physiological as well as mental. When sunlight touches skin, a compound called nitric oxide is released into the blood vessels, a process that brings blood pressure levels down—which can lower the risks of heart attack and stroke.
4. Reduced risk of some cancers
While sunlight brings increased chances of skin cancer, a number of studies have shown associations between sun exposure and lower risks of colorectal, prostate, and breast cancer, as well as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Credit vitamin D for those wins.
5. Stronger bones
Appropriate levels of vitamin D also keep your bones healthy, Holick says, and that becomes even more important as we get older and menopause zaps our bone strength. But even kids are seeing the effects of lower sun exposure. Researchers worldwide are alarmed by the increase in rickets—a disease once thought to be eradicated—which softens the bones and can lead to fractures.
6. Potential weight loss
Get tan, lose weight? It's not quite that easy (sorry). But there are some links between sunshine and weight loss. One study found that the higher your vitamin D levels were before starting a weight reduction plan, the more likely you were to succeed, especially for ditching belly fat. Another study suggested that older women who don't get enough vitamin D may be slightly heavier than those who do.