Light Deprivation: What Happens if You don't Get enough Sunlight?
Did you know humans spend 90% of their time inside?
While this is has become normal in today's society, the effects of no sunlight on the human body can be detrimental.
Keep reading to learn more about sun deprivation and what you can do to combat it.
- The Top Benefits of Sunlight
- Light Deprivation: What Happens if You don't Get enough Sunlight?
- Understanding Melatonin Deficiency
- Understanding Serotonin Deficiency
- How to Increase Serotonin: The Ultimate List
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Why do We Need Sunlight?
Most of us learn early in our lives what too much sun can do to us. We often hear, ‘Make sure to wear sunscreen -- you could get sunburnt or even develop skin cancer.’ or ‘Don’t look directly into the sun, or you’ll damage your eyes.’
But did you know that not enough sun can be detrimental too?
Proper sunlight exposure does more for our bodies than we may realize. It prompts our brain to produce serotonin, a hormone that wakes us up and gives us energy. Serotonin is then converted into melatonin at night, which helps us fall asleep more easily. Sunlight also helps our bodies produce vitamin D and can even benefit our heart, eye, and skin health!
Unfortunately, with Americans spending 90 percent of their time indoors on average, most of us don’t get enough sunlight. Without enough sunlight, our whole lives can be affected.
Is Sunlight Good for You?
While yes, too much sunlight can hurt your health, you do get quite a few benefits from it. Getting a healthy amount of sunlight plays an important role in:
- A healthy sleep-wake cycle
- Adequate vitamin and hormone levels
- Strong bones
- Good mental health
- A healthy immune system
- And much more.
In this article, we’ll outline exactly what can happen when we’re deprived of that necessary light and what you can do to make sure you get it.
What Happens if you Don't get Enough Sunlight?
Lack of Sun Exposure Symptoms
Sunlight impacts a wide array of bodily functions including your sleep schedule, energy levels, mental health, and more. The importance of sunlight to humans cannot be emphasized enough. Below, you'll find a list of lack of sunlight symptoms that become prevalent and can result in sun deprivation syndrome.
Irregular Sleep-Wake Cycle (Circadian Rhythm)
Like we mentioned earlier, sunlight aids in the production of two hormones: serotonin and melatonin. Together, these hormones regulate our sleep-wake cycles and keep us on a consistent schedule, serotonin helping us wake up and melatonin helping us go to sleep.
“Natural sunlight helps regulate the body's internal clock or circadian rhythm. This rhythm affects sleep-wake patterns, hormone release, and other bodily functions. Without regular sunlight exposure, this rhythm can be disrupted.” - Dr. Brandon Crawford DC, FIBFN-CND
If you're lacking sunlight, sleep problems may occur. Too little sunlight exposure can result in deficiencies of these hormones and throw your sleep-wake cycles off. You may have trouble getting tired and falling asleep at night or feel exhausted during the day. Melatonin deficiency, in particular, can cause sleep problems, making it hard to wake up feeling rested even if you’re able to fall asleep at night.
Learn More About Your Circadian Rhythm
Our sleep-wake cycle plays a critical role in our health and wellness. Having a healthy sleep-wake cycle boosts our well-being. Learn more in our circadian rhythm guide where we cover what it is, how it works, and ways to ensure it's healthy.LEARN MORE
- Sunlight aids in the production of serotonin and melatonin
- Without adequate sun exposure, our bodies don't product enough
- These deficiencies throw off the circadian rhythm, which dictates our sleep-wake cycle
- This results in sleep problems
Low Energy and Productivity
Did you know that sunlight contributes to how productive you are?
"When exposed to natural light during the day, your body experiences an increase in serotonin levels, primarily meant to equip you with the energy you need to tackle the day." - John Dolores, Ph.D., JD, FACHE, Bespoke Treatment
The serotonin that sunlight helps our brains produce gives us the energy we need to think, focus, and complete tasks throughout the day. Sunlight exposure also aids the body in the production of vitamin D, an essential vitamin that keeps many systems in our bodies working properly.
When we don’t get enough sunlight, our body doesn't create as much serotonin or vitamin D. Low serotonin levels can make us tired and lethargic, and vitamin D deficiency is also known to cause fatigue. This can make it hard to focus or get much done, even if it's a task you want to do.
- Sunlight gives us serotonin and vitamin D
- Low levels of serotonin and vitamin D makes us tired and lethargic
Depression and Other Mental Illness
Low levels of vitamin D have also been linked to depression, and serotonin deficiency can also be associated with:
- Low self-esteem
- And a depressed mood.
A study done in 2007, for example, found that serotonin deficiency caused depression and other mood changes in women. Serotonin deficiency has also been linked to other mental illnesses, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
“Getting your daily dose of sunshine often encourages you to venture outdoors, move your body, and interact with others. All of these activities are known to help with depression, so getting some sunshine can be a big part of preventing or overcoming depressive feelings.” - John Dolores, Ph.D., JD, FACHE, Bespoke Treatment
Seasonal Affective Disorder (aka Seasonal Depression or the Winter Blues)
For some people, the lack of sun in the winter months can cause them to feel depression and other mood changes during that season alone. This is known as seasonal affective disorder, sometimes referred to as seasonal depression, winter depression, or the “winter blues.” However, others may always struggle to get sunlight and experience depression year-round.
Learn More About Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder can be a difficult condition to have. Symptoms of SAD include poor sleep, low energy, loss of interests, and depleted mental health. Our guide covers everything there is to know including:
- What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
- Risk Factors of SAD
- Stats and Facts About SAD
- Ways to Treat SAD
- And more!
- Low levels of vitamin D and serotonin have been linked to depression, OCD, panic disorder, and social anxiety
- Seasonal depression is another condition caused by a lack of sunlight
- It typically occurs in the winter, when sunshine is limited
Like we mentioned earlier, vitamin D helps many functions of the bodywork properly. One aspect vitamin D plays a significant role in is our bone strength. It aids in our body’s ability to absorb calcium and collagen, which is a process that keeps our bones strong and healthy.
“When there's insufficient vitamin D, the risk of bone disorders like osteoporosis and fractures increases.” - Dr Kevin Huffman, CEO & Founder of Ambari Nutrition
That said, vitamin D deficiency keeps this process from occurring correctly, which can lead to bone pain and bone loss. Multiple studies have concluded that those with low vitamin D levels are more likely to have a lower bone density and are more at risk for bone loss. Vitamin D deficiency can even lead to or exacerbate bone disorders, such as:
- And osteoporosis.
- Vitamin D plays a significant role in bone strength
- Sun deprivation reduces our vitamin D levels
- Low vitamin D levels puts us as risk of bone pain, bone loss, and low bone density
- This can lead to or exacerbate bone disorders such as fractures, osteopenia, and osteoporosis
Weakened Immune System
Our immune system helps us fight off infection and stay healthy.
Vitamin D and healthy sleep habits both play a role in keeping our immune system functioning correctly. When a lack of sunlight keeps us from sleeping well and causes us to become vitamin D deficient, our immune system can suffer, and we may get sick more frequently.
“Certain skin disorders like psoriasis, eczema, and jaundice can be effectively treated with sunlight. Lack of sufficient sunlight can exacerbate these conditions, leading to increased discomfort and slower healing times.” - Dr. Archit Agarwal - Dermatologist, MBBS, MD. at Clinic Spots
Vitamin D deficiency has been found to make us more susceptible to colds and the flu, as well as infection and autoimmune disorders. Without a properly functioning immune system, our body’s ability to control inflammation and heal wounds is also impaired.
- Not getting enough sunlight creates two problems: poor sleep and low vitamin D levels
- These two problems can weaken our immune system, causing us to get sick more frequently
- Vitamin D deficiency makes us more prone to colds, the flue, infection, and autoimmune disorders
It’s possible that not getting enough sunlight may cause you to gain weight. One reason this may be is something we’ve already discussed -- inadequate sunlight exposure can throw off our sleep cycles and make us feel tired throughout the day. That exhaustion can affect our metabolism and make us more likely to consume too much food to compensate for the energy we’re lacking.
Another reason is that the sun’s UV rays aid in our body’s nitric oxide production, a nutrient that keeps many of the body’s processes, including our metabolism, working correctly.
“Light also affects the appetite, energy expenditure, and thermoregulation in the body. Insufficient light can disrupt metabolic processes, causing changes in appetite and potential weight gain.” - Rahul Malpe, Certified Nutritionist at Your Weight Loss Nutritionist
For example, one study found that nitric oxide production caused by UV rays can suppress weight gain and even prevent diabetes.
- A lack of sunlight throws off our sleep cycle, which causes us to be tired throughout the day
- This exaustion can affect our metabolism, causing us to consume more food to compensate for a lack of energy
- The sun's UV rays also play a role in our metabolism
- A study found nitric oxide production caused by UV rays to suppress weight gain and prevent diabetes
High Blood Pressure
Other effects of a lack of sunlight, like insufficient sleep and depression, can cause our stress levels and blood pressure to rise. But a lack of sunlight alone could also be directly to blame.
A study done in 2020 found that UV radiation from the sun can be associated with lower blood pressure, suggesting that insufficient sunlight exposure could be a risk factor for hypertension or high blood pressure.
High blood pressure could put you at risk for heart disease or stroke, so it’s best to get the sunlight you need to reduce stressors and lower your blood pressure.
- The effects of poor sun exposure causes poor sleep and depression, which can increase stress levels
- UV radiation has been linked to low blood pressure
Looking directly into the sun can damage your eyes, but a lack of sunlight may also be bad for your eyesight.
"In normal lighting conditions, like sunlight, our eyes receive the necessary wavelengths and intensities of light. When sunlight is lacking, it can result in reduced visual acuity. Visual acuity measures our eyes' ability to distinguish shapes and details at various distances." - Saya Nagori, MD, Ophthalmologist & CEO of EyeFacts
It’s possible that inadequate sunlight exposure could cause nearsightedness, or the inability to see things clearly unless they’re near you as you age.
A 2016 study, and many others, found an association between those who’d spent less time in the sun between ages 14 and 39 and those who developed nearsightedness at age 65. However, it’s uncertain why this is as the study did not find a link between vitamin D levels and nearsightedness as previously thought.
- While looking directly at the sun can hurt eyesight, not getting enough can create nearsightedness
- A study found a correlation between those who spent less time in the sun and developed nearsightedness later in life
Higher Risk of Cancer
Similarly, too much sunlight exposure can lead to skin cancer, but not enough sunlight can also put you at risk.
One study found that those living in areas with less sun and those with vitamin D deficiency were more at risk of developing common cancers. Conversely, that same study found that moderate exposure to sunlight and sufficient vitamin D levels could decrease that risk.
- Too much or too little sun exposure can put us at risk of cancer
- A study found those living in areas with less sun and those with vitamin D deficiency to be at higher risk of developing common cancers
- The same study found moderate sun exposure and adequate vitamin D levels to decrease the risk
The Perfect Solution for Sunlight Replacement
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How Much Sunlight is too Much?
Getting too much sunlight can cause skin and eye damage, among other issues. But as we’ve discussed, you still need it to live a healthy life, and you might be wondering what the proper amount of sunlight is.
The amount of sunlight someone can handle largely depends on their skin tone. Someone with light skin may only be able to handle 10 to 20 minutes in the sun, while someone with brown or black skin may be able to handle over an hour in the sun. This is because fair skin is more sensitive to the sun’s UV radiation.
How Much Sunlight do You Need a Day?
Most people only need 10 to 15 minutes of sunlight exposure to receive its benefits, though. To get the most benefits, it’s best to expose your skin during midday, when the sun is highest in the sky, and its UV rays are most potent. To work it into your routine, you could sit outside or go for a walk during your lunch break.
- Skin tone can significantly dictate how much sun we can handle
- Lighter skin tones may be able to handle 10-20 minutes of sun whereas darker tones may be able to handle over an hour
- Darker skin tones are less sensitive to UV
- Most people only need 10 to 15 minutes of sun per day
- For the most benefits, sun exposure midday is when UV rays are most potent
What if You Can't Get Sunlight?
How to compensate for a lack of sunlight
Whether it be due to shift work, daylight savings, or living in an area with less sun, you may not always be able to get the amount of sun you need. Luckily, some alternatives allow you to get the benefits of light without exposure to natural sunlight. These include:
Bright Light Therapy
Bright light therapy, put simply, is the process of exposing yourself to artificial light that mimics sunlight.
Exposure to light boxes signals to the brain to produce serotonin and melatonin in the same way natural sunlight would, giving you energy, putting you in a better mood, and helping you sleep better. To learn more about bright light therapy, check out our Ultimate Guide to Bright Light Therapy.
Eating foods rich in vitamins can help keep you in optimal health despite the lack of sun.
Foods rich in vitamin D (like salmon, red meat, and eggs) may help, and foods rich in vitamin C (such as oranges, peppers, and broccoli). For most vitamins, you can get the proper amount per day through a balanced diet alone.
If you’re unable to eat a balanced diet or to get enough of a specific vitamin through food, vitamin supplements such as vitamin D and vitamin C can help.
Melatonin supplements may also help you sleep, and L-arginine supplements can aid in producing nitric oxide as sunlight would. This can help make up for any deficiency a lack of sunlight may have caused. However, it’s important to always talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
Exercise can help you prevent weight gain that light deprivation may cause, but it can also be a beneficial alternative in several other ways. Exercise can put you in a better mood, help you sleep better, lower your blood pressure, and boost your immune system.
As we’ve covered, when you don’t get enough sunlight, it can be detrimental to both your physical and mental well-being. The sun is just as crucial to our livelihoods as food and water, so it’s essential you find time in your day to expose yourself to natural light properly. And when you can’t, it’s best to take steps to include alternatives into your daily routine.
- There are a variety of ways to combat sun deprivation
- Bright light therapy uses artificial light to mimic sunlight that causes the body to produce serotonin and melatonin
- Foods rich in vitamin C and D can replace lost vitamins from the sun
- Vitamin supplements are a convenient way if a balanced diet is not an option
- Exercise can prevent weight gain and offer a boost in serotonin
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is sunlight important? Do humans need sunlight?
Sunlight is important for many reasons. Adequate exposure to the sun gives us the needed vitamins and hormones to function mentally and physically. We get vitamin D and serotonin from the sun which aids in bone strength and our sleep-wake cycles. Because of all its benefits, humans need sunlight to function adequately.
Can lack of sunlight make you sick?
Not getting enough sunlight can weaken your immune system and make you more prone to diseases such as osteoporosis, cancer, the flu, and more. Your body gets essential vitamins and hormones (such as serotonin and melatonin) which are vital to keeping your body physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy.
Sun Deprivation Related Resources
About the Author
Stephanie Schwarten is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelors degree in Professional Writing. She specializes in content marketing as well as both developmental and copy editing.
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