For millions of years Earth’s inhabitants have evolved under the rays of the sun. The solar rays keep us warm, enable us to see, and provide vital energy that promotes growth and is essential for a myriad of life processes.
Throughout time, humans have revered and worshipped the sun, recognizing its immense healing powers, knowing well that their very lives depended on it. Sun Deities presided over virtually all ancient civilizations including Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Mayans. Temples were erected to honor the sun and capture the healing solar rays.
Sunlight has been used as medicine for thousands of years. In his book, “The Healing Sun”, Richard Hobday recounts the rise and fall sunlight therapy, called heliotherapy, named after the Greek sun god Helios. Heliotherapy was practiced by noted physicians Hippocrates and Ephesus who prescribed sun bathing for chronic diseases including asthma, epilepsy, paralysis, hemorrhage, jaundice, bladder problems and obesity. The Greeks advocated exercising in the nude to take advantage of the sun’s rays which imparted strength and stamina in the athletes. The word gymnasium is derived from the word “gymnasion” which means a place for naked exercise. The Roman philosophers Pliny the Elder and Cornelius Celsus and the great Arabic physician Avicenna all advocated exposure to the sun along with good sanitation to maintain health and cure a variety of ills. With the advent of Christianity and the “dark age”, sunlight therapy fell from grace, due to its close association with sun paganism.
It wasn’t until the tuberculosis epidemic in late 19th century Europe that heliotherapy made a comeback. TB arose as a result of squalid and polluted conditions in cities. It killed and disfigured millions and baffled physicians. Then in 1877 British scientists Dr. Arthur Downes and Thomas Blunt discovered that sunlight had a bactericidal effect. Shortly thereafter German bacteriologist Robert Koch discovered the bacterium that caused TB, and found that sunlight was capable of preventing and curing the disease. He won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1905. During World War I, before antibiotics became widely available, sunlight was used to heal wounds.
As a result of these discoveries, hospitals sprung up across Europe designed by physicians and architects to harness the sun rays for healing. Heliotherapy was a precise science which considered the constitution of the patient, skin type and the amount of sun exposure required to achieve healing. Sunlight therapy was administered in the early morning very gradually over a period of several weeks or months in cool temperatures (ideal temperature at 64 degrees F) and fresh air. Rest, a nutritious diet, and sometimes sea bathing were also a prescribed. It was noted that healing was only achieved in patients who acquired a tan. Heliotherapy achieved great success, not only with TB, but with other conditions including rickets , septic abscesses, osteomyelitis (infection of the bone), anemia and fractures.
Unfortunately, with the discovery of antibiotics sunlight therapy once again fell into obscurity. The valuable information that was gleaned by heliotherapists about the sun’s beneficial effect on health is no longer taught in medical schools. Even more remarkable is the current medical stance that the sun is harmful and to be avoided! Today we are told to avoid exposure to the sun, to cover up when outside, and to put sunscreen on any part of the body that is touched by the sun’s rays. We are warned that if we do not take these precautions we will surely contract skin cancer and age at an accelerated rate. Yet when we look at the facts about the sun’s effect on the body, we see a very different picture.
The solar rays that penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere to reach us are made up of 37% visible light seen as the colors of the rainbow, 3% ultraviolet waves, and 60% infrared waves perceived as heat. 98% of solar radiation enters the body through the eyes, and 2% enters the skin. The ultraviolet rays that sunscreens are designed to block include UV A rays and UV B rays. These are the rays that can cause sunburn and possibly skin cancer. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are skin cancers that rarely cause death, while the deadly melanoma can spread throughout the body.
One of the very important benefits of the ultraviolet rays, and UV B in particular, is that it is essential for these rays to contact our skin in order for us to manufacture Vitamin D. In fact sunlight exposure is the primary way we obtain Vitamin D. Some food sources contain small amounts of Vitamin D including fatty fish, full cream milk, butter, and organ meats. Vitamin D supplements are also available but only some are safe in the higher potencies needed for health.
Vitamin D is actually a hormone that is produced in the body, and like other hormones acts as a chemical messenger that plays a part in regulating body functions such as growth, reproduction, blood sugar balance, and mood. Vitamin D maintains the correct balance of calcium and phosphorous for bone formation and remodeling. If Vitamin levels are low, we cannot absorb calcium, no matter how much we supplement. This is why sunlight therapy was so effective in healing rickets, a disease of malformation of the bones associated with Vitamin D deficiency. Because of its role in bone formation, osteoporosis, osteomalacia and tooth decay are all related to Vitamin D deficiency.
Sunlight and its interaction with Vitamin D is vital to a healthy heart and circulatory system. Studies show that a substance in the skin called squalene is converted by the sun to Vitamin D, but in the absence of sunlight, it is converted into cholesterol. This may explain why high cholesterol is more prevalent in the winter when daylight hours are shorter and in higher latitudes where the sun’s rays are not as strong.
A study done in 1935 showed that UV radiation can lower blood pressure in 60 to 70 percent of hypertensive people. A more recent study in 1998 determined that it is specifically UV B radiation that lowers blood pressure. Incidence of high blood pressure is higher in during the winter and lower during the summer when solar radiation is strongest. As in the case of high cholesterol, published data also shows a linear rise in blood pressure at increasing distances from the equator. Of interest is the fact that dark-skinned people have a higher incidence of high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Considering that the pigment melanin is greater in dark-skinned races as a protectant from UV rays that are stronger in their countries of origin, dark-skinned people require six times the level of solar radiation in northern climates than whites to achieve the same solar benefit.
Sunlight irradiates the blood passing through capillaries near the surface of the skin, and increases the oxygen content of the blood much like exercise does. EKG readings improve in patients with atherosclerosis when exposed to UV radiation. A 1998 study of 600 patients admitted to a hospital in England after their first heart attack showed that deaths were more frequent among patients who were put in sunless north-facing rooms than those in sunlit rooms. It should not be surprising that more people die of heart attacks in winter than the rest of the year and with increasing frequency the farther the distance from the equator.
Sunlight has also been shown to lower blood sugar in diabetics and speed up elimination of toxic chemicals. It has been common practice for many years to expose jaundiced infants to sunlight for several hours a day to reduce dangerously high bilirubin levels in the blood. Sometimes blue light therapy is prescribed for this as it is the blue range of the UV spectrum that gives the most benefit. Before this discovery, blood transfusions were given to jaundiced babies. Sunlight exposure in early childhood can also help to prevent childhood diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
But what about skin cancer and the deadly melanoma? As it turns out, there is no scientific evidence that the sun’s rays cause melanoma. In fact incidence of melanoma is greater in the northern latitudes where the days are shorter and sun’s rays are weaker. In addition, melanoma is rare in people who spend much of their time outside and the parts of the body where melanoma develops are areas that are most often covered by clothing. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas can develop in fair skinned susceptible individuals from overexposure to the sun, but not at the levels suggested for sunlight therapy and optimum health. In fact research has shown that one third of all basal cell carcinomas occurred in areas receiving less than 20% of the maximum possible ultraviolet dose. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are rarely life threatening and can be easily removed by conventional surgery on an outpatient basis. There is also some evidence that natural therapies can help to heal these types of skin cancer such as unprocessed pure virgin coconut oil and various herbal preparations. A healthy diet and daily supplements of antioxidants such as Vitamins, A, C, E and astaxanthin have been proven to help to prevent skin cancer.
Sunscreens are particularly problematic, considering that many of them consist of toxic chemicals that make us more susceptible to cancer. They also make it impossible for the beneficial UV rays to penetrate the skin and are likely a major cause of Vitamin D deficiency. In fact, skin cancer rates increased dramatically when sunscreens were first introduced and continue to rise in populations that use them.
Contrary to popular theory, studies show that healthy exposure to the sun can actually decrease your chances of developing cancer and even help to heal it. In his book, “Health and Light”, photobiologist John Ott tells of Dr. Jane Wright, a cancer researcher at Bellevue Medical Center in New York City who he worked with in 1959 on a study of the effects of sunlight on cancer. She asked 15 cancer patients to spend as much time as possible in natural sunlight without glasses or sunglasses and to avoid artificial light and television. After three months, 14 out of 15 patients showed no further advancement of tumor growth, and several improved. The one patient that didn’t respond continuously wore glasses. This is not surprising, since glass blocks 99% of UV rays.
More recently, in 1992, Dr. Gordon Ainsleigh reported in the Preventative Medicine Journal, that after reviewing 50 years of medical literature on cancer and the sun, he concluded that the benefits of regular sun exposure appear to outweigh by a considerable degree the risks of squamous and basal cell carcinoma, melanoma and accelerated aging. Like other conditions, death rates from cancer of all types, including colon, breast, prostate and ovarian, are greatest in latitudes where the sun’s rays are weakest and lowest in regions of the world within 20 degrees of the equator. In the U.S. cancer rates are 40% higher in north than in the south.
Of greater concern is the vast numbers of people who do not get enough sunlight due to “Vitamin D Winters” caused by seasonal changes and location, or lifestyle. Compared to our ancestors modern man spends 90% of his time indoors shielded from the sun’s rays. Modern office buildings often have tinted windows that don’t open with artificial light and recirculated air that breeds pathogens. Long-term exposure to artificial lighting from incandescent and standard fluorescent bulbs, neither of which contain the full spectrum of visible light or ultraviolet rays, cause a number of health problems, including adrenal stress, depression, cognitive deficiencies, and immune weakness to name a few.
Another condition first identified in the 1980’s is Seasonal Affective Disorder or S.A.D. where a lack of sunlight during the winter months can cause severe depression in some individuals. This is because sunlight that enters the eyes stimulates the hypothalamus to secrete serotonin, known as the “feel good hormone” and is what keeps us relaxed and emotionally balanced. At night, the lack of sunlight stimulates the pineal gland to secrete melatonin which slows down the metabolism and enables us to sleep and rejuvenate. In a sense, sunlight is our external timekeeper that regulates our biological clock, or circadian rhythms. It is said that to maintain health, we need to have at least 1 to 2 hours hour of natural sunlight daily and 8 hours of deep restful sleep.
John Ott was known to say that modern man suffers from “mal-illumination.” In his research he noticed the harmful effects of artificial lighting on plants, animals and people, and was responsible for inventing full spectrum bulbs to simulate sunlight indoors. One of the earliest studies done on the effects of artificial vs. full spectrum light showed that when standard fluorescent bulbs in classrooms were replaced by full spectrum lights, the behavior and health of the children improved dramatically. Businesses that make the switch notice a significant increase in employee productivity and reduced absenteeism. While full spectrum lighting has been particularly helpful for those with S.A.D., we can all benefit physically and emotionally from this healthy light.
Of course, there is no replacement for natural sunlight and the vital energy that it gives us. How wonderful to know that the most healing therapy of all is just a step outside and it is free.