Ask anyone living far North or South of the equator if they’d like sunshine 365 days of the year, and it’s unlikely you’ll get many responses of “No, I like clouds and rain and it getting dark at 4pm”. Yet, for some reason, in Malaysia or even Kuala Lumpur, we avoid it like the plague. Many a logistical concern is based around how to get from A to B without leaving air-conditioning.
It’s understandable. Sweating when not during a workout is uncomfortable and can be quite socially inconsiderate, and many of us have been subject to fear-mongering by sunscreen companies. The reality of it though is that we evolved under the sun and, in the right dosages, it plays an undervalued role in our health.
First of all, as mentioned in our recent article Sleep 2.0, it is crucial to our ability to sleep well. Our body clock is referred to as our Circadian Rhythm – the rhythm with which our brains dictate how we wake up and sleep each day. Without sufficient sunlight exposure in the early hours of the day, our body is unable to set this clock effectively and thus release sufficient melatonin at night.
A recent study by the aptly named Dr. Peter Light found that the melanopsin molecules in our eyes that detect daylight as also exist in fat cells. They then exposed the fat cells to blue light for 4 hours a day for 13 days to see how it affected the structure and function of the adipocytes. The fat cells ended up smaller, and they weren’t storing as much fat. This is a big deal, because smaller fat cells are better able to accommodate excess lipid, are less inflammatory, and, generally, are associated with better metabolic health.
They secreted less inflammatory signalling protein that, in high levels, is associated with metabolic disease. The researchers also found increased release of glycerol from the fat cells, which suggests a higher rate of lipolysis (ie fat breakdown).
This correlates with another study by Professor Andrew Brown at UNSW which found that the last step in a 20-stage process required to produce cholesterol is hindered by UV exposure to the skin. A substance called 7DHC that would usually become cholesterol is actually converted into Vitamin D.
This all makes sense as a study by D.S. Grimes, investigation the connection between sunlight exposure, cholesterol and coronary heart disease showed that countries further from the equator had higher rates of heart disease. They also had increased blood cholesterol in the winter months – something we in Malaysia, or even in Kuala Lumpur shouldn’t have to deal with.
So apart from it being preferable to our bodies producing cholesterol, why else are we so concerned about vitamin D? First of all, it’s not technically a vitamin, just like how pumpkins and eggplants aren’t vegetables, despite common terminology. As it can be produced in our bodies through the process above, it is considered a pro-hormone.
It is a crucial part of calcium processing, as it’s used in absorbing it into the intestines. Pro-hormone D (as we will call it for the remainder of this article) deficiency has thus been shown to increase osteoporosis – when one’s bones become brittle. It also reduces the risk of sicknesses and diseases,
From the common flu, to diabetes, to even cancer. Pro-hormone D influences over 200 human genes, and its deficiency has been associated with numerous brain diseases, so its importance cannot be underestimated.
So go on, choose to go for your morning jog outside as opposed to on a treadmill. Walk somewhere further away to lunch at work and take the unsheltered route. Take that 10-minute phone call where you need privacy outside, as opposed to a board room. And use your weekends as an excuse to get even more of it. Your body will thank you, even if it means you have to bring a change of top to work or have an extra shower on your Sunday.