The Healing Power of Heat and Light

Even before the pandemic, many of us spent the majority of our time indoors. Work, play, leisure, and education are all inside, especially as more of our activities become digital.

However, that means we’re spending less time out in nature with our kids, soaking up the sun. And while sun safety is important, we also depend on sunlight and heat to regulate our sleep, stoke our metabolic fires, and convert cholesterol into vitamin D.

Our air-conditioned, indoor lifestyles devoid of natural light may very well be impairing our mental health, detoxification, and metabolism as well as our children’s. Read on to learn why you should spend more time outdoors with your kids (with sunscreen, of course!)

Heating Up Your Health

You may not like to feel hot and sweaty, but your body appreciates it. And there’s a big difference between overheating and absorbing heat that stimulates your circulation. In fact, moderate heat exposure is great for your heart. Individuals who regularly use a sauna have a lower likelihood of cardiovascular disease. That’s because the ambient heat dilates the blood vessels and makes them more pliable, decreasing blood pressure and boosting circulation.

Heat also activates heat shock proteins that reduce inflammation. This can help you recover from injuries or the strain of exercise, as well as keep your gut and detox systems in top shape. Thanks to relaxed and dilated arteries, you’re also more likely to have nutrient-rich blood delivered to the areas that need healing.

External heat stimulates our blood flow and boosts metabolic activity. Deep penetration of heat helps release toxins stored in your adipose (fat) tissue. As they’re released into your skin and blood vessels, your body is better able to expel them. That means that prolonged exposure to low- to moderate-heat can help you detox easier, giving your liver and kidneys a well-deserved break.

How to Enjoy Heat Safely

It should go without saying that climate change is a real concern, and record-high temperatures can be dangerous. However, getting a little warm is good for you. When the weather permits, enjoy some time in the sun. Aim for times when the UV index is below 3 (typically early morning or late afternoon). If you plan to spend more than 15 minutes outdoors, do wear sunscreen and be sure to cover your children head to toe too. Our bodies will still absorb enough sunlight to make vitamin D.

That brings us to…

Why We Need Sunlight

Our bodies convert cholesterol into a wide range of vitamins, enzymes, and hormones. One of the most critical is vitamin D. When we’re exposed to sunlight, our bodies produce this vitamin, which regulates our mood, energy, and metabolism and also supports our bone health and immunity. When we spend most of our time indoors, though, we may become deficient in vitamin D. Many people experienced this during the pandemic!

Ever noticed that you tend to feel more depressed and forlorn during the winter months? That’s typically caused by Seasonal Affective Disorder, appropriately abbreviated as SAD. It happens because the decreased amount of sunlight reduces our levels of vitamin D. Our serotonin levels drop, creating depression-like symptoms. We often also experience a disruption in our circadian rhythms, which are cued by the sun (more on that in a moment).

Above the latitude of 37 degrees North, the wintertime sun is insufficient for making vitamin D. So, spending time outdoors may not help with your SAD symptoms. However, you can supplement vitamin D. Check with your doctor for your recommended dosage.

Sunlight also modulates our circadian rhythm, or when we tend to feel energized, get tired, and want to eat, sleep, and perform other bodily functions. Many of us spend our evenings surrounded by artificial light, which can confuse our bodies’ “sleepytime” signals. That’s why experts recommend minimizing exposure to blue light (which mimics sunlight) before bedtime.

If you’re indoors all day, though, your body can’t discern day from night. Sunlight triggers the production of serotonin, which makes you feel alert, while darkness promotes melatonin, which makes you sleepy. When you’re constantly surrounded by apparent daylight, you may struggle to sleep well — or find energy when you need it. Regular exposure to natural sunlight can help balance your circadian rhythms.

How to Enjoy the Sun Safely

You can spend up to 15 minutes outdoors and gain all the vitamin-boosting, rhythm-regulating benefits of sunlight. You don’t need sun protection during this time. Many of us can obtain our 15 minutes simply by running errands or commuting to work. If the UV index is very high (such as during noon), you should use a light sunscreen (SPF 15).

For prolonged sun exposure, especially during a high UV index, always wear sunscreen. The longer you’ll be outside and the higher the UV index, the higher the SPF should be. You’ll still enjoy the sunshine, and the exposure can help you reset your circadian rhythm. (Just be sure to avoid blue light before bed!)

Sweat It Out

Sweat is nature’s way of keeping us cool, whether we’re externally heated or performing a physical activity. Either way, our body temperature rises, and our skin releases sweat, which evaporates to cool us down.

Sweating may feel unpleasant (and it can certainly be stinky). However, if you’re exercising intensely or working in the sun, it’s a life-saving process. Plus, it’s a way for your body to essentially flush out dirt, impurities, and toxins.

That’s exactly why some people strive to sweat. Saunas are a time-honored method for inducing sweating without physical exhaustion or potentially dangerous sun exposure. By gradually and thoroughly heating the body, a sauna raises your core temperature, encouraging your body to sweat as your blood vessels also dilate. This can help expel toxins. Indeed, sweat often has much higher levels of cadmium, mercury, arsenic, and lead than does urine, indicating that the body efficiently releases these heavy metals through sweating them out.

Of course, good ol’ fashioned exercise is great for sweating as well. As your muscles produce ATP to drive your movement, that metabolic activity generates heat. That’s why you may sweat more during anaerobic exercise (e.g. weightlifting) than through cardio. Either way, though, you’re bound to break a sweat — and that’s a good thing. Embrace the sweat as a sign that your body is rebuilding tissue and expelling metabolic waste. Plus, your pores will be nice and clear afterward!

How to Sweat Safely

Despite the benefits, sweating can cause dehydration. Whether you’re relaxing in a sauna or hitting your beast mode, drink plenty of water. This will replenish the fluids lost to sweat and help your muscles and blood vessels stay pliable and strong. Most people need to drink 8 ounces of water every 10-20 minutes of their workout, as well as 20 minutes before and 30 minutes after. Cap your sauna time to 15 minutes and drink a cup of water before and after your session.

Conclusion

Staying indoors in the frigid AC all day isn’t good for our body or mind. We need natural light and heat to regulate our metabolism, sleep, and mood. Plus, exposure to sunlight stimulates crucial vitamin D production, as well as overall cardiovascular health. So, take a moment to get out of the office or house and enjoy the outdoors. Be wary of UV exposure and overheating, but also embrace the warmth. There’s a reason the Sun is often associated with life and prosperity in cultures around the world!

This article is inspired by an interview with Nicole Carlson of Sunlighten Saunas.

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