11 ways the sun affects your body: The good and the bad

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The sun can sometimes get a bad rap for only having negative effects on our health when, in fact, it has several positive effects for our overall health. Carey Bligard, MD, UnityPoint Health, says like many other things, sunshine should be enjoyed in moderation to avoid painful sunburn, heat rash, wrinkles and skin cancer.

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Positive Effects of the Sun

Enhances Your Mood

Dr. Bligard says there are many benefits from sunlight , including that it is a free mood enhancer. Days full of sunlight make people feel better and have more energy, but it also increases the levels of serotonin in the brain, which is associated with improved mood. Not surprisingly, serotonin levels are highest in the summer.

Treats Seasonal Depression (commonly referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder)

In certain people, the lack of sunlight in the winter seems to trigger depression. Symptoms include bad moods, difficulty making and keeping friends, overeating, tiredness and sleeping too much. Seasonal depression, formerly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, is rare in the warmer months.

Relieves Stress

Everyone experiences stress for various factors, such as family, work and health issues. Dr. Bligard says stress can be relieved in a variety of ways, including exercise, having relaxing hobbies, walking the dog or by getting out in the fresh air for a little sun exposure.

Improves Sleep

Sunlight exposure impacts how much melatonin your brain produces and melatonin is what tells your brain when it is time to sleep. When it gets dark, you start producing melatonin so you are ready to sleep in about two hours. With more sunlight in the summer, you are likely to feel more awake. Dr. Bligard points out that modern technology has allowed us to change our light exposure artificially with lights, TV screens and computer screens (including tablets and cell phones). Consequently, the incidence of insomnia is much higher now than it was before these devices were invented.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a vitamin involved in maintaining healthy bone strength. One way you can get this sun vitamin is exposure to the ultraviolet light in sunlight. However, you don’t need much time in the sun to reap the benefits. Dr. Bligard recommends only 15 minutes of sun exposure to provide all the Vitamin D you need.

The Harmful Effects of the Sun

Sun Damage to the Eyes

Long-term, unprotected exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun can damage the retina, which is the back of the eye where the rods and cones make visual images, which are then sent to the visual centers in the brain. Damage from exposure to sunlight can also cause the development of cloudy bumps along the edge of the cornea, which can then grow over the cornea and prevent clear vision. UV light is also a factor in the development of cataracts.

Heat Exhaustion

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heat exhaustion is the body’s response to excessive loss of water and salt, usually through excessive sweating. People working in a hot environment are at risk of heat exhaustion.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Irritability
  • Thirst
  • Heavy sweating
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Decreased urine output

Heat Stroke

If heat exhaustion is left untreated, it can lead to heat stroke. Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness and can be life-threatening. According to the CDC, heat stroke causes the body’s temperature to rise quickly and can reach up to 106 degree Fahrenheit within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke requires immediate medical attention because if it is left untreated, it can cause death or permanent disability. If you notice heat stroke, call 911 immediately.

Symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • Confusion, altered mental status, slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness (coma)
  • Hot, dry skin or profuse sweating
  • Seizures

Sunburn

Sunburn is widely recognized as one of the most common negative effects of too much sun exposure. Dr. Bligard says the maximum symptoms of sunburn do not usually appear until about four or five hours after the sun exposure occurs. Ultraviolet light is the cause of sunburn, which may come from the sun or tanning beds. 

General symptoms of sunburn include:

  • Redness
  • Pain/tenderness
  • Swelling
  • Blisters
  • Flu-like symptoms, such as nausea, fever, chills or headache

If you notice a sunburn fever, it’s times to seek attention from a medical professional. Besides a fever, severe burns also involve significant pain and extensive fluid-filled blisters.

Heat Rash

A heat rash is a skin rash that occurs when sweat ducts trap perspiration under the skin. Heat rash often takes place during hot, humid weather and, according to the CDC, often looks like red clusters of pimples or small blisters. Heat rash develops in skin folds, elbow creases, the groin or on the neck and upper chest. 

Heat rash can be treated by staying in a cool environment to prevent sweating and by keeping the affected area of skin dry. To help relieve the symptoms of heat rash, the CDCsuggests using powder to increase comfort. However, it is not advised to use ointment or creams.

Skin Cancer

Dr. Bligard says the worst consequence of long-term exposure to the sun is the development of skin cancer. Because the sun damage to the skin develops over years, the older you are, the greater the risk of developing skin cancer. After years of exposure to the sunlight, providers look for three common types of skin cancer (in order of how often they occur): basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma.