Is there a healing power in the sun?
February 5, 2013 4:46 AM   Subscribe

I live in northern New York where we have short hot summers of about 2 to 3 months and long cold winters. I have a variety of health problems, including joint problems, and hormone problems including low testosterone and higher than normal estrogen (I am a male) . I have noticed that in the summertime If I sit outside for one to two hours every day to absorb the sun I feel healthier, my joints hurt less, my hormones seem better, and I have more energy. Also if I have a cut or a twisted ankle It seems to heal faster then in the winter. Assuming that it was the vitamin D from the sun that was causing this , I took vitamin D pills every day in the winter. However, I did not experience any of the benefits that I experienced with regular sunshine exposure. This leads me to believe there is something else, some sort of other healing power in the sun that either science is not aware of yet or that I am simply not aware of. Is this possible?
posted by john123357 to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Also--talk to your doctor first before you hit the vitamin aisle, maybe for blood testing as well--if you're truly deficient, lower doses/multi-vitamin doses of D (and it should specifically be D3) don't cut it. When I've gone way under, my endocrinologist puts me on 5,000-10,000 iu/daily. (And note, "endocrinologist." Seriously, vitamin D is fat soluable so you can overdo it; and folks like me are super deficient--as confirmed by regular blood testing--due to thyroid disease or other health issues. Go to the doctor.)
posted by availablelight at 4:53 AM on February 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes to getting tested. I took huge pills to get my levels back up and now take twice the RDA. I do believe that a lot of your symptoms could be caused by a deficiency but IANAD.
posted by dawkins_7 at 5:01 AM on February 5, 2013

Response by poster: According to my doctor my levels are normal, there must be something else besides vitamin D that the sun gives.
posted by john123357 at 5:03 AM on February 5, 2013

As far as your joints go, it might be the warm weather rather than the sunshine. Warmth helps immensely with joint flexibility.

That said, I've often joked that I'm solar-powered; even though I take vitamin D supplements I still feel immensely better when it's bright out, regardless of the temperature. Whether it's learned or instinct, I associate sun with activity, darkness with rest, and clouds with staying inside. It might be at least partly psychological.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:08 AM on February 5, 2013 [6 favorites]

Check out this talk on - essentially claiming that the UV rays release nitric oxide into the skin which appears to have a number of beneficial effects, including lower blood pressure etc.

Could the Sun be Good for Your Heart
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 5:13 AM on February 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I don't think its just the heat because I don't have AC, and in the summer my house gets very hot but my joints only feel better if I have been out in the sun regularly.
posted by john123357 at 5:27 AM on February 5, 2013

Could it be that in the summer, you have the time to sit in the sun, whereas you don't have that time in the winter? So maybe you're getting more rest in the summer, and life is generally less hectic and stressful?

I don't know. But I also feel better both physically and mentally on sunny summer days. Maybe we're just Sun People.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:51 AM on February 5, 2013

Response by poster: I have equal free time in the summer and winter.
posted by john123357 at 5:55 AM on February 5, 2013

I agree with availablelight that it's possible that your previous D/D3 supplementation was insufficient. Maybe you were taking it on an empty stomach and it wasn't getting absorbed, maybe there just wasn't enough of it. Also, taking a vitamin doesn't give you the rest, meditation, physical warmth, hormetic stress, and perhaps socializing that basking in the sun does.

Other possibilities: It's quite normal to associate brighter, sunnier, greener days with being happier, happy memories, and so on. Some people get depressed when they don't get enough sunlight--maybe this is happening to you, but to a lesser extent. Being warmer is better for joints and makes it easier to warm up for exercise, making injury or re-injury less likely. You are probably more active in the summer months. People are outside more when it's sunny, and you probably socialize more in summer. Outside air is full of microbes; there is evidence that fresh air really is good for you, and I suspect you are outside more in summer. There's proof that taking a walk in the woods and so on, which you may do less of in winter, is terribly good for you. Maybe your sleep habits are worse in winter.

The fact that there are a lot of variables here, and that many of those variables are tough to measure, and that your doctor does not make solving this rather amorphous riddle a top priority does not mean that there's some "healing power" of the sun that "science isn't aware of yet". Those particular words make me suspect you may be hunting for some sort of magic.
posted by daveliepmann at 6:17 AM on February 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

I certainly feel better when I spend time outside, even if it's not particularly sunny. Is there a reason you *can't* spend time outside in the winter? I know it's cold and the days are shorter, but can you make a special effort to take a walk before work or at lunchtime? I mean, who cares *why* the sun makes you feel better, just get out there and feel better if at all possible!
posted by mskyle at 6:37 AM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Why do you want to know? Is there something specific you want to do with this info? If you're, say, looking for a reason to persuade your family to move to Aruba do you need more evidence than it makes *you* feel better?
posted by freya_lamb at 6:45 AM on February 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Light affects body clocks synchronization. (Deliberately plural.) Travelling across many time zones can make heart arrhythmias worse.
Exposure to electronic screens like tablets can mess up sleep.

Many people get SAD in winter. Probably affects synchronization and serotonin.

The first time my mother wintered in Florida, when she retired, I was stunned at the aura of vitality and health she projected. I had never seen her like that even during our Summers. Obviously something quite significant happened with the greater sun exposure.

Although it is worth getting your D levels checked (mine were very low even with significant supplementation), I suspect you are right that there are other things at play.
posted by PickeringPete at 7:03 AM on February 5, 2013

Exposure to sunlight is a common treatment for psoriasis... so much so that I've seen European tourists in Eilat, in Israel, on excursions that were paid for by their health insurance. (Eilat is special because it's very sunny but also at extremely low elevation, so the sunlight is more filtered when it hits you.) I don't know if some of the same effects might be helping you. (Is what you have "psoriatic arthritis?" apparently there is such a thing and it is also treated with sunlight or UVB lamps.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:05 AM on February 5, 2013

I think you're on to something. I, personally, hate summers and hot, sunny days. Being in the sun for more than an hour makes my head hurt and leaves me tired and cranky. However, soaking up the sun (not sunbathing, I'm usually fully clothed from head to toe) for about 20 mins a day does make me feel better overall. It helps my joints and energizes me like nothing else will. I can't say it's Vitamin D because I'm not getting any absorption through the skin (fully clothed, remember?), and heating pads don't give my joints the same relief as a warm sun will.

But yeah, daily sun does help me, so I think you're right that we take something good from the sun.
posted by patheral at 8:31 AM on February 5, 2013

I moved from the northern US to a more tropical location that has a lot more sun and a lot more heat. All sorts of joint aches and overall body pains went away. They come back almost immediately if I go north, which, so far, I've done only in winter, so in my case I can't say if it's heat or sun.

There are some folks here who say that proximity to the equator relieves things like fibromyalgia and overall aches and pains, but I haven't seen any studies or other scientific support. I have noticed that in my case, sweat plays a role. The more I sweat, the less I ache, whether it's sweating from exercise or sweating from lying in 95% humidity at 95 degrees F.
posted by ceiba at 8:32 AM on February 5, 2013

Ceiba's excellent comment reminds me that air pressure and other qualities of the air in winter have been noted as helpful for lots of joint issues, arthritis, and so on both in the literature and by several people I know.

Tom Kurz's discussion of natural recovery methods in his book Science of Sports Training (page 124) cites "Mika, T. 1983, Fizykoterapia, Warsaw: PZWL" for the following:

Sunshine improves blood circulation in the skin and natural immunity, soothes pain, lowers blood pressure, and stimulates the endocrine system, metabolism, and the production of vitamin D needed for management of calcium and phosphorus....

I couldn't get access to the paper/journal/book and I suspect it's in Polish.

Kurz also cites Mierzejewski 1988 for frequent swimming in open waters and improvement in breathing with sea air, as well as this:

On cloudy days exposing the body to fresh ir improves lung ventilation and the function of the cardiovascular system, and it regulates the vegetative nervous system. The influence on these systems is more intensive with lower temperatures.

I also forgot to mention that your diet probably changes in winter.
posted by daveliepmann at 8:52 AM on February 5, 2013

Response by poster: so what does the sun make the body produce that "improves blood circulation in the skin and natural immunity, soothes pain, lowers blood pressure, and stimulates the endocrine system, metabolism" ?
posted by john123357 at 3:19 PM on February 5, 2013

I don't know because I don't have access to the study. Probably multiple things. It's possible that not all of those effects are fully mapped out, much like digestion and muscle growth, where we know a great deal but are still investigating many aspects of the process. I wonder how much they teased out sunlight qua sun exposure from time spent in the sun.
posted by daveliepmann at 3:38 PM on February 5, 2013

John - not to thread-sit or anything, but regarding your question "what does the sun make the body produce..." if you check out the link to the TED video that I posted above you'll see that it is very likely nitric oxide and that there are ongoing studies to determine the exact nature of the process and if there is anything else involved.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 5:46 PM on February 5, 2013

This episode of Bang Goes the Theory has a segment on Russell Foster's 1991 (re)discovery of the intrinsically photosensitive, melanopsin-containing ganglion cells, a 3rd type of retina cell besides rods and cones, which, evidence indicates, plays a major role in setting circadian rhythms.
posted by at at 12:35 AM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's not just the Vitamin D, it's the sunlight entering your eyes. This produces a signal in your brain to "wake up" and boosts production of seritonin. I bet you sleep better on days you get lots of sun too, right? It's all about the seritoin/melatonin cycle in your brain that helps sleep regulation.

I get my sun light every day (almost) and I frequently go in full clothing and with sunblock on my face (so no Vitamin D production) and I can definatly notice when I don't get a chance to go out in the AM or if it is a rainy day. This is another reason for the whole Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder. Thankfully I live in Florida, I can't imagine moving some place with no sun.
posted by eq21 at 3:16 PM on February 6, 2013

More on nitric oxide from sun exposure:
posted by daveliepmann at 7:34 AM on May 8, 2013

« Older What's for dinner with Andre?   |   Is it over already?! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.