Design for Life: Why We Need the Sun

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“If only the sun would come out, I would have the score finished in no time.” –Richard Wagner

In my last column I extolled the virtues of indoor/outdoor living, suggesting that harmony with natural elements is a good way to heal our relationship with life on earth. But is sunlight really good for us?

The sun is the center of our lives. It gives us day and night, seasons, light, heat, colors, wind, plant life, moonlight and a sense of direction and time of day–not to mention awesome sunrises and sunsets. Solar heating, daylighting, and solar electricity reduce our dependence on nonrenewable energy sources. And the absence of sunshine can be debilitating, as any sufferer of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can attest. Yet sunlight can degrade fabrics, overheat our homes, encourage cataracts, and cause our skin to age and develop cancer. We are urged to go outside only under cover of hats, sunglasses, sunscreens, and tightly woven fabrics. What we rarely hear is that sunshine is also an important element of good health.

Why we need sunlight

According to Zane Kime, M.D., M.S., in Sunlight (World Health Publications, 1980), the ultraviolet (UV) portion of sunlight helps our heart, blood chemistry, immune system, energy level, and sex life, while its absence weakens our body’s systems and contributes to disease. Furthermore, we rely on the sun’s daily and annual cycles to regulate such bodily functions as heart rate, blood pressure, hormone levels, metabolism, and immunity. When modern living throws our biological rhythms out of synch with solar rhythms, the results can be fatigue, depression, insomnia, digestive problems, poor coordination, loss of mental ability, and loss of sex drive and fertility.

Sunlight also improves our attitudes and behavior. Studies have shown that students in daylit schoolrooms performed markedly better than their non-daylit peers. Daylit retail stores experienced increased sales, less absenteeism among employees, and fewer employee mistakes. One survey of indoor workers, from warehouse employees to upper management, found a strong correlation between job satisfaction and the amount of sunlight entering the workspace. There’s even a link between sunny mornings and positive stock market returns.

Revising our attitudes

Warnings about skin cancer also deserve a deeper look. Surprisingly, several studies have found lower rates of skin cancer among outdoor workers than among office workers.

Mortality rates for breast and prostate cancer are lower in regions where sunlight is most plentiful. Epidemiological data gathered between 1980 and 1998 showed only shaky evidence that sunburn causes skin cancer, and no direct evidence that sunscreens were protective. Dr. Kime points out that the real culprit in skin cancer may be sunburn caused by free radicals, related to consumption of polyunsaturated fats and refined foods.

In other words, we don’t know enough about the mechanisms by which sunlight relates to skin cancer. The history of popular attitudes toward the sun is one of wide pendulum swings based on changes in religion, science, and fad; it looks like we’re at the extreme end of a swing, and it’s time to restore our balance.

We need sunlight, but we don’t need to overdo it. Michael J. Lillyquist writes in Sunlight and Health (Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1985): “It is clear that we cannot close the books on the beneficial aspects of sunlight but that we should also have a healthy respect for its potential harm. While dermatologists have not erred in their warnings about the damage that excessive exposure can do to the skin, it is time that we recognize that skin is but one organ of the human body and that there is such a thing as moderate exposure … The sun is dangerous. And the sun is beneficent. But to come too close to either of the extremes–to bake in it endlessly or to avoid it assiduously–is to invite trouble.”

Learning to dance with the sun

What is prudent exposure? The effects of UV radiation depend on several variables: the season (angle to the sun), altitude, latitude, time of day, length of exposure, and age and skin tone of the individual. An elderly black person living in a polluted northern inner city with no pleasant places to be outdoors is at the greatest risk for UV deprivation.

For vitamin D synthesis, some experts suggest that ten to fifteen minutes of sun two to three times a week at midday (or fifteen to thirty minutes earlier or later) is sufficient. To combat SAD, fifteen minutes to one hour per day outdoors during daylight hours is recommended. (High-intensity electric light boxes are also used to counteract SAD where getting sunlight is problematic.) For synchronization of biological rhythms, exposure to bright light for several hours a day is suggested; sitting near a window is fine. Some recommend controlled sunbathing for health; others don’t. The wild card in this picture is depletion of the ozone layer, which admits increasing amounts of UV radiation to earth. In any case, one is advised not to burn and to avoid prolonged exposure to midday summer sun. Should we use sunscreen? I’ve seen evidence for and against it. My own strategy is to get moderate sunshine exposure on untreated skin most days, and to use a sunscreen when I’m at risk for sunburn. We need to make our own decisions based on our circumstances.

In addition to its health effects, we can all benefit from developing a richer relationship with the sun. Do you awaken gradually in the mornings with sunlight, or does an alarm clock interrupt your sleep cycles? Does sunshine enter the rooms where you spend your days? Do you get outdoors with some skin exposed every day? Do you notice that the color of the sun’s light is different in the morning, noon, and evening–different in summer and winter? Do you notice the sun’s path being higher in summer than in winter? Do you watch the sun rise or set?

If your life is less than sun-kissed, here are some suggestions. Learn to identify the compass directions, and observe the sun’s path across the sky regularly. Notice where sunlight falls at various times of day in your home, yard, and workplace. As appropriate, move furniture to bring your activities closer to daylight. Create a sculpture or sundial that makes the sun’s motion visible. Grow plants. Rise with the sun and slow down after sunset. Move some activities outdoors. Cultivate a life within walking distance of home. Listen to your body and mind to create your own right relationship with the sun. ­

CAROL VENOLIA is an architect, author of Healing Environments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being.