Sun and Speed: Why Sunshine And Movement Are Essential To Your Health

fall landscape

No, I am not talking about doing drugs outdoors, but I’m referring to what ancient man (and woman) often experienced. They got a lot of sun, and they probably moved a lot, and it is safe to say that this is what we are probably the life we are meant to experience. While most of us may enjoy sitting down in a temperature-controlled room, we really aren’t physiologically wired to have this sort of experience every day of the year.

Think about it. When, in the history of humankind, until very recently, did people stay inside so much, and do such little activity?  The upper classes, few in number, perhaps had such an experience, but most did not. In fact, most people throughout human history have spent long hours outside and have been, whether as wandering nomads, hunter-gatherers, or simply working the fields, on the move.

You can’t take a human body, designed to be outside, and on the move, and stick it at an desk inside for 10 hours a day, and/or on a couch for 5 hours a day inside, and expect health and happiness. And this could be why many Americans are unhealthy and feel so darn unhappy.

There are many good reasons to actually be out in the sun, and one is Vitamin D production.  Studies show that many diseases are tied to low Vitamin D levels, including autism, cancer, depression, and multiple sclerosis, diseases becoming more common as Americans spend less-and-less time in the sun. While it is true too much sun exposure can increase the risk of easily treatable forms of skin cancer, and increase the rate that your skin will look “ridden hard and put away wet,” as local good-ol boys describe it, sun exposure likely helps prevent difficult-to-treat cancers like breast and colon cancer.

Ok, we need some sun, but do we need speed? Likely. One example is a study that shows that runners live significantly longer than non-runners, in part because running encourages new nerve growth.  And combining the two for some sun and speed, has some benefits as well.  For example, one study found that while exercising indoors reduced depression by 45% , exercising outdoors decreased depression by 71%, almost double the indoor rate. So basically, moving outside is much more effective at treating depression than exercising indoors. This could explain that while exercising at the Y can sometimes be a chore, I rarely have to be prodded to run outside, over the hills outside my old high school.

I often ponder these things while I am running outside, for example, yesterday in the blistering heat, which limited my time outside. One thing I thought of is that in the last 20+ years, we have been taught to value being inside, and honestly, to fear the outside. It seems as if parents are so worried about what may possibly happen to a child, that a lot of the stuff I did growing up outside (that kids had done for years earlier) is now off-limits. So, since a child can’t go outside and play at noon (the sun is too hot and a weird looking redneck just walked by), he sits inside glued to the computer, not that he would even want to go outside anyway, because he can just “go outside” on his video game.  Then when he does go outside for real, the sun has a kind of “it burns, it burns” feel, and being weighed down by too  many bags of snack-size Cheetos, he runs (not literally, of course) for cover for the nearest air-conditioned building. I am basically describing myself as a middle-schooler, except that my mom was never hysterical, and did encourage us to play outside, although since the Nintendo was inside, I often stayed there.

Basically, the point is my post is that a lot of our modern problems, including depression and chronic diseases (like cancer) could be related to the fact that our modern way of living is just contrary to our wiring. Instead of immediately reaching for expensive drugs, long courses of therapy, or self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, or partying, we may just need a little more sun and a little more speed*. Of course, I say this while I type inside with the AC turned up…

* – Obviously depression is a real condition, and it is important to seek a doctor’s advice before going on or off depression medication, or before beginning an exercise program.

Fighting the Coming Winter Blues

flower in vase

Fall is a good time for many of us, since we associate the season with holidays (such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Advent), chilly nights at football games, campfires, and good food. However, for others, the beginning of fall signals the coming winter, and with it, the winter blues, given the name “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” appropriately abbreviated SAD.

There are ways to fight back. I have suffered from mild SAD in the past, and I am more likely to get “down” in the winter. Since I have become very active in the summers, I have generally dreaded winters. However, last winter was a notable exception, and it was a long, cold, winter to boot, so I was doing something right. One of the things I was doing was getting sunshine whenever possible. Every morning at school, I would go to window of my room, and just “take in” the strong sunlight for a few minutes.  I also made sure I got outside if possible. Usually we get some freak warm days in the winter months, and you can bet I am outside, and the windows of the house are open to air it out (again, if it’s possible). Using this strategy (among others, which I’ll share in the future), I avoided any trace of the “winter blues.”

Science backs me up on this. I came across a study that connected serotonin levels in the brain to sunlight. Sunlight raises serotonin levels, while lack of it lowers serotonin levels. This could explain why a) people get more down in the winter, and b) why people who spend a lot of time indoors, even in the summer, often suffer from depression.

It’s not winter yet; heck, it’s not even autumn, but now is a good time to start thinking about strategies to deal with the coming winter blues and blahs.

Vitamin D and Obesity

Summer Day

Could a little sunshine melt away the pounds? Well, I suppose if the sun is hot enough it would, or…making a little extra Vitamin D might be less painful. At any rate, I found a really cool “quiz” that sums up the Vitamin D and obesity research in a fun way.

The studies on Vitamin D, sunlight, and obesity tend to suggest that moving to from a high to low altitude, thus decreasing sun exposure, increases body fat. There are other factors that could lead to increased body fat besides Vitamin D levels in these cases. However, other studies controlled for these other factors, and found that when populations that dress modestly (e.g. Saudi Arabian women) moved altitudes, there was no weight gain or loss. This suggests that Vitamin D could be the weight-loss/weight-gain factor here.

Studies show that obese individuals have lower circulating levels of Vitamin D and Calcidiol than normal-weighted individuals.  In what could be an exciting finding, some studies have shown a linear relationship between body fat and blood calcidiol (that is, as the calcidiol in the blood drops, body fat goes up, and vice versa). Of course, more research is needed before it is clearly known what role Vitamin D plays in obesity, but it is pretty exciting!

Anecdotally, upping my Vitamin D intake to 1000-2000 IU/day coincided with my “turning the corner” in my effort to gain muscle, and lose fat (even when eating more than I should have). I know that correlation does not imply causation, which is why I am only providing this as an anecdote. I also tend to do a lot of the right things related to my health, so it would be unwise to give Vitamin D all the credit.

Vitamin D is cheap. It is available. It is pretty much non-toxic. If there is one supplement we should be taking (especially in the winter) it is Vitamin D. I take quite a few supplements, but if I was limited to one, it would be Vitamin D (it is funny…but 10 years ago it probably would have been dead last on my list…but recent research has changed all that).

Image taken by me in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, in 2007.

Research: Multiple Sclerosis could be a Vitamin D Deficiency

Vitamin D keeps me busy. There just seems to be too many positive studies coming out for me to keep track of all of them. Fortunately, the Vitamin D Council produces a newsletter that helps. I highly recommend subscribing!

In what could be an amazing finding, researchers linked the causes of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) with Vitamin D deficiency. The Times is reporting that scientists have found a direct genetic link between low Vitamin D levels and MS. Some researchers believe that giving all pregnant mothers, and young children, vitamin D supplements could eradicate Multiple Sclerosis entirely. If this is true, then MS could be a bit like Scurvy, the disease associated with Vitamin C deficiency. Scurvy confounded physicians of the time, until it was found that the juice of a humble lime could cure it.

I supplement with Vitamin D. The supplement is cheap, widely available, and pretty much non-toxic.

In less exciting news, Medicare apparently will no longer pay for Vitamin D blood level testing. So, here we have a vitamin that is associated with lower risks of cancer, heart disease, depression, and MS, and Medicare decides to stop paying for testing for it. This is why I don’t trust the government to make me healthy, and am not too excited about government sponsored health care (not that I am too thrilled with the way private health care has been going).