Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health

Each day, Apollo’s fiery chariot makes its way across the sky, bringing life-giving light to the planet. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, Apollo was the god of medicine and healing as well as of sun and light—but Apollo could bring sickness as well as cure. Today’s scientists have come to a similarly dichotomous recognition that exposure to the ultraviolet radiation (UVR) in sunlight has both beneficial and deleterious effects on human health.

Most public health messages of the past century have focused on the hazards of too much sun exposure. UVA radiation (95–97% of the UVR that reaches Earth’s surface) penetrates deeply into the skin, where it can contribute to skin cancer indirectly via generation of DNA-damaging molecules such as hydroxyl and oxygen radicals. Sunburn is caused by too much UVB radiation; this form also leads to direct DNA damage and promotes various skin cancers. Both forms can damage collagen fibers, destroy vitamin A in skin, accelerate aging of the skin, and increase the risk of skin cancers. Excessive sun exposure can also cause cataracts and diseases aggravated by UVR-induced immunosuppression such as reactivation of some latent viruses.

However, excessive UVR exposure accounts for only 0.1% of the total global burden of disease in disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), according to the 2006 World Health Organization (WHO) report The Global Burden of Disease Due to Ultraviolet Radiation. DALYs measure how much a person’s expectancy of healthy life is reduced by premature death or disability caused by disease. Coauthor Robyn Lucas, an epidemiologist at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health in Canberra, Australia, explains that many diseases linked to excessive UVR exposure tend to be relatively benign—apart from malignant melanoma—and occur in older age groups, due mainly to the long lag between exposure and manifestation, the requirement of cumulative exposures, or both. Therefore, when measuring by DALYs, these diseases incur a relatively low disease burden despite their high prevalence.

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In contrast, the same WHO report noted that a markedly larger annual disease burden of 3.3 billion DALYs worldwide might result from very low levels of UVR exposure. This burden subsumes major disorders of the musculoskeletal system and possibly an increased risk of various autoimmune diseases and life-threatening cancers.

The best-known benefit of sunlight is its ability to boost the body’s vitamin D supply; most cases of vitamin D deficiency are due to lack of outdoor sun exposure. At least 1,000 different genes governing virtually every tissue in the body are now thought to be regulated by 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 (1,25[OH]D), the active form of the vitamin, including several involved in calcium metabolism and neuromuscular and immune system functioning.

Although most of the health-promoting benefits of sun exposure are thought to occur through vitamin D photosynthesis, there may be other health benefits that have gone largely overlooked in the debate over how much sun is needed for good health [see “Other Sun-Dependent Pathways,” p. A165]. As for what constitutes “excessive” UVR exposure, there is no one-size-fits-all answer, says Lucas: “‘Excessive’ really means inappropriately high for your skin type under a particular level of ambient UVR.”


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About the Author: Tung Chi