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MEDICAL RESEARCH

Seeking Out Sunlight Daily: Why It's Crucial to Continued Wellness

The best things in life are free, and the sun is no different.

December 18, 2023
Medically-reviewed and fact checked by Ryan Lester, PA-C

Andrew Huberman, a distinguished figure in the field of neuroscience at Stanford University and renowned for hosting the immensely popular "Huberman Lab" podcast, has centered his scientific findings and content production in his studio on one subject: The importance of being outside and observing sunlight in the morning for everyone.

Recently, across Huberman’s social media platforms, he outlined morning sunlight as one of the six fundamental pillars contributing to our mental and physical well-being. The other pillars are physical activity, a well-balanced diet, effective stress management, nurturing relationships, and high-quality sleep – most are tenets that no one would disagree with, but sunlight? In the morning? And outside, specifically?

Huberman has certainly done his homework. His findings rely heavily on the importance of our “circadian rhythm” — which is akin to an internal timekeeper governing various bodily functions throughout a 24-hour cycle. Natural daylight exposure — especially in the morning — acts as a critical cue for any necessary adjustment and regulation of the body’s aforementioned clock.

The actual effects of morning sunlight aren't merely theoretical; they’re backed by Huberman’s rigorous research. Incorporating a brief morning walk lasting between 10 to 30 minutes into your daily routine can yield immediate effects, leaving you feeling more alert and awake afterward. This practice is especially beneficial for individuals struggling to get going in the morning. Most people who commit to the practice will notice reduced grogginess, heightened productivity, and improvements in their overall sleep quality.

Studies and Findings of Other Scientists

Andrew Huberman isn't the sole authority highlighting the significance of outdoor light for our well-being. No, Mariana G. Figueiro, a distinguished professor and director at Mount Sinai's Light and Health Research Center, has conducted extensive studies on how light influences our health. Her findings in particular are centered on the profound impact of bright days and dark nights on quality of life.

When we deprive ourselves of exposure to daylight, particularly in the morning, our internal clocks tend to drift, causing a delay of approximately 10 minutes per day. Consider the confusion our internal clocks would face if we were secluded in darkness for an extended period: Our internal clocks would start to interpret daytime as nighttime, and vice versa. Hence why exposure to daylight is crucial for resetting our biological clocks and keeping them in sync.

While many are familiar with sunlight's role in vitamin D production and the role our skin plays in this, its influence on circadian regulation primarily pertains to the light from our surroundings reaching the back of our eyes. Interestingly, this can occur even while sitting in the shade. It’s also important to note that indoor lighting typically lacks the intensity of natural light. On an average sunny day, exposure amounts to around 100,000 lux (a unit measuring light), while even a cloudy morning can offer roughly 5,000 lux. In contrast, standard indoor lighting only provides about 300 lux.

The Ideal Time of Day to Be In Sunlight, & How the Sun Helps

Morning isn't the sole critical period for light exposure; evening darkness is equally important for maintaining proper circadian regulation. Without a balance between light and dark, the result is what’s been termed as "circadian disruption," leading to issues such as poor sleep, decreased cognitive performance, and daytime drowsiness. Further prolonged disruption is linked to a weakened immune system and heightened risks of conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer.

Figueiro's research revealed that implementing specific lighting for Alzheimer's patients in nursing homes improved their sleep, reduced depression, and lowered agitation levels over six months, despite the progression of their Alzheimer's disease.

The recommended daily exposure to daylight is at least an hour, with a minimum of half an hour, especially in the morning. Figueiro herself incorporates her daily dose of daylight during her morning commute, whether by walking or driving, and avoids wearing sunglasses to maximize light intake. You can integrate morning sunlight into your routine easier than you may think: By walking your pet, having breakfast outdoors, or a quick raking of the leaves in your yard that may have blown in over the last day. Avoiding sunglasses is important for best absorption of the sun’s natural light.

It’s important to note that when spending more time outdoors, be mindful of sunscreen application to shield your skin from harmful UV rays. In the event that you’re unable to access outdoor sunlight, sitting in front of a bright window can offer some benefits. Splitting outdoor time — like spending half an hour in the morning and another half-hour at lunch — can be effective. The only caveat is that morning sunlight is optimal in regulating the internal clock.

In essence, morning sunlight is a critical element of your body’s regulation, significantly influencing the regulation of our circadian rhythms and overall well-being. Incorporating outdoor light into your daily routine, particularly in the morning, can profoundly transform your health and quality of life. Hence, when contemplating staying indoors or reaching for sunglasses in the morning, reconsider and prioritize that essential morning sunlight. Your body and mind will express gratitude for it.

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