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The Sleep Benefits of Sunlight

We often find ourselves with a crazy schedule and the first thing we seem to sacrifice is our sleep. Many are aware that the lack of sleep is going to contribute to decreased attention and increased grogginess, but we may not realize sleep deprivation is one of the biggest catalysts for the development of chronic disease in the United States. For example, research has shown that even one night of sleep deprivation can make you insulin resistant, as a person with type 2 diabetes. It is too often overlooked in regards to our energy levels but also to our basic health, so let’s look at a simple and free way to improve our sleep; Sunlight!

There are really 3 key players in the game and they are Serotonin, Melatonin, and Cortisol. 

A lot of you may have heard of our biological clock called our circadian rhythm.  What you may not realize is that this is actually a hormonal based system, with its headquarters housed in part of our brain, called the hypothalamus. This is the master gland of your body that dictates hormone release throughout your body.  The mind-blowing fact that I wanted to discuss is that our daily sunlight exposure directly affects this system.

The coach of the team is Serotonin, its job is to assist with the flow of the team and is involved in every aspect of the game. Serotonin’s main job is to regulate that internal clock to make sure everything is functioning properly and on time.  Many things influence the production of this hormone but one major factor is sunlight.  In fact, our eyes have special light sensors relaying how much light exposure we are getting throughout the day and sending that to the brain. The more sunlight our eyes are exposed too is directly related to the amount of serotonin our body produces.

If serotonin is the coach, then Melatonin is the star player, it is there to score you a great night of sleep.  Melatonin’s job is not exactly to put you to sleep but to create the optimal environment to have a good night’s sleep.  As serotonin was influenced by light exposure to our eyes, Melatonin seems to be more influenced by light exposure to our skin. Research studies have shown exposure to our skin throughout the day will improve the production of Melatonin at night and the more Melatonin we have a higher quality of sleep we have.

The last hormone involved is probably the most well-known, it is “the stress hormone,” Cortisol. There is a large fear of Cortisol in today’s highly stressed world, and the thought “if we could just get rid of it the world would be a happier place,” but in actuality, cortisol has an important role.  Alan Christianson, the author of Adrenal Reset Diet, likens Cortisol to a coffee pot. “Think of it as your built-in coffee pot.  You wake up in the morning because your adrenals just made a fresh batch of it.  You fall asleep at night because they shut it off”.  So, Cortisol is actually very important to get us up and moving but if we are never able to turn it off, that’s when it becomes problematic.  Guess what?! Heavy doses of sunlight during the day have an inverse effect on cortisol levels at night. In other words, the more sun we get the less cortisol at night and the better sleep we get.  Also, it appears that cortisol and melatonin have an inverse relationship with each other when one is high the other is low.

One thing to keep in mind while we are focused on exposing ourselves to more light is there are unfortunately some negatives with the positives.  If you have a family or personal history of any form of skin cancer it is important to take the proper precautions on wearing sunscreen to protect your skin.  Keep in mind that it is important to expose yourself to natural sunlight but by no means does this mean you have to be out in the sun for hours on end.  Just 15 minutes can be effective. 

Who knew that the more sun exposure we can have a better quality of sleep we will receive.  So, get outside and start having more fun!  Then sleep like a baby!!

For more information on sleeping please refer to the book Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson which this information was pulled from. 


Aaron Bauer PT, DPT CSCS 


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