Light Deprivation: What Happens if You don't Get enough Sunlight?
Most of us learn early on 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. That 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. 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?
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.
Too little sunlight exposure can result in deficiencies of these hormones and throw our sleep-wake cycles off. We 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
Low Energy and Productivity
Did you know that sunlight contributes to how productive we are? 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 bodies don’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 we want to do.
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, irritability, 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.
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 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, resulting in poor sleep, low energy, 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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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. For example, one study found that nitric oxide production caused by UV rays can suppress weight gain and even 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.
Looking directly into the sun can damage your eyes, but a lack of sunlight may also be bad for your eyesight. 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.
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.
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.
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.
What if You Can't Get 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. This exposure 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.
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.
About Carex Health Brands
Carex is your one-stop shop for home medical equipment and for products that assist caregivers with providing the best possible support and care for their loved ones. Carex Health Brands has been the branded leader in in-home, self-care medical products for over 35 years. Our goal is to improve the lives of our customers by bring them quality products that bring dignity back to their lives. With our three nationally distributed brands, Carex Health Brands serves national, regional and independent food, drug and mass retailers along with wholesalers, distributors and medical dealers.
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