Are You Addicted to Sunlight?

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • You only need to head to the beach on a sunny, summer day to see a multitude of people enjoying the sunshine. This is despite all of the evidence that the UV rays from the sun increase our risk of skin cancer and prematurely age our skin. Over and over we are advised to stay out of the sun during the bright sunlight of the afternoon. But, for the most part, we don’t.


    We like to be outside in the sunshine. We like to feel the sun on our skin. It makes us feel good and no amount of urging to stay out of the sun will work. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a little more than half of all adults indicated they had a sunburn in the past 12 months; that number is much higher, 65 percent for white adults. But why do we do that in the face of the prospect of wrinkles and skin cancer?

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    Our bodies need Vitamin D for strong bones. Because few foods have this Vitamin and most of our Vitamin D comes from sunlight, it is possible we crave the sunlight to boost our Vitamin D reserves.  According to  M. Nathaniel Mead, in an article, Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health, “Most cases of Vitamin D deficiency are due to lack of outdoor sun exposure.”  Think back to a time when it was raining or the sky was overcast for days on end. Once the sunshine finally returns, you want to be outside. You want to feel the sun.


    But there might also be another reason. Sunshine might be addictive. A recent study shows that sunlight increases our endorphins. These are neurotransmitters in our brain and are known for their “feel good” effect. Endorphins are released during times of high stress and pain. They help reduce your perception of pain in a way similar to pain medication, such as codeine. Endorphins can also lead to feelings of euphoria and are thought to play a major role in addictions. When something triggers your endorphins, you want to feel the “high” again and again. Besides alcohol and drugs, exercise releases endorphins which is why people feel a “need” to exercise and can become addicted to it.


    Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School recently published a study on the effect of sunlight on endorphins. In the study, the scientists exposed mice to UV rays five days a week for six weeks for the equivalent of a fair skinned person being exposed for 20 to 30 minutes per day. After one week, the endorphin levels in the mice increased.


    After the six weeks of exposure, the mice were given a drug which blocked the endorphins from being released. The mice experienced symptoms similar to withdrawal, including shaking, teeth chattering and tremors. The mice avoided the areas where they had received the drug. The researchers believe the mice became “addicted” to the UV rays and went through withdrawal when removed, similar to any other addiction.


    If we, like the mice, become addicted to sunshine, it would explain why, despite the warnings to stay out of the sun, we do not. We feel better emotionally when taking in the sun’s rays. We crave that feeling, we want to be in the sun and our bodies are telling us to spend time outdoors. David Fisher, the senior study author, thinks our need for Vitamin D contributes to our need for the sun. But, he believes, there are safer ways for us to fill our need for it, including supplements. 

Published On: July 21, 2014