You must have heard how excessive sun exposure can increase the risk of skin cancer. But is it the only truth? Is sunlight entirely bad for you?
From treating various skin conditions to improving your mood, sunlight has a lot of proven benefits. If you live in a high-altitude area with little sunlight, a box of light can also provide mood-boosting effects.
Lately, a new possible benefit of sunlight has been explored by the scientists. The possibility of sunshine as a treatment for flu has been a new breakthrough in the field of medicine.
Can sunshine actually keep you healthy during the irritating flu season?
Researchers now have evidence of this. A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research has proven how higher levels of sunlight can cause a decrease in the severity of flu.
The authors of this paper extracted their primary data from two different sources in order to assess the connection between the sunlight levels and the influenza incidence.
The data for this study was taken from the North American Land Data Assimilation System which takes into account almost 48 contagious states as well as the District of Columbia.
Further data was taken from the flu index published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The aggregate data was harmonized to a 10-point scale by the aggregation of data from the state health departments.
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The scientists found that a higher level of relative sunlight was linked with a lower relative incidence of influenza. For instance, in September when the levels of sunlight were 10 percent higher than average, the influenza index was reduced by three points.
The relationship between sunlight and the incidence of influenza was particularly prominent during the late summers and early fall as per the scientists.
This time of the year was regarded to be the only time when the levels of sunlight as well as the flu season are at its peak and can be studied for a possible connection.
During the late summers, there is a large amount of sunlight available hence, a huge possibility for variation exists. At the same time, a massive flu season is seen all around the country which makes it easier to study.
In comparison to this, there is not sufficient flu activity seen during the summer months hence, it is not the best time to observe a relationship between sunlight and the flu infection in people.
Similarly, there is a high level of flu activity in December but at the same time, there is not enough sunlight so, the study cannot proceed in winters.
Vitamin D can Protect You from the Flu
This study is an addition to the growing body of literature that connects vitamin D to an influenza risk. When ultraviolet radiation present in the sunlight hits your skin, it causes the production of vitamin D.
In addition to this, you get vitamin D from a lot of foods but it is of course not easy to get enough of it through diet only.
In the recent years, different research teams have been studying the effects of vitamin D supplementation on the risk of flu and other respiratory infections.
In an article published in the BMJ, the researchers performed a meta-analysis of the individual participant data collected via randomized control trials.
In 25 different clinical trials involving 11000 patients, the scientists were able to prove a statistically significant reduction in the incidence of acute respiratory infections merely with the help of vitamin D supplementation.
Overall speaking, the scientists were able to see a modest effect. However, it turned out to be quite large once they drilled down and observed the effects of this supplementation when given daily or weekly to the people deficient in vitamin D.
The participants started while having a low baseline level of vitamin D had a 50 percent reduction in their risk of contracting an acute respiratory infection upon consuming vitamin D supplements on a weekly basis.
In contrast to this, the protective effects of supplementation with vitamin D were smaller in people who had higher baseline levels of this vitamin when they started it.
Finding the Right Balance of Sunlight Exposure is Important
Of course getting too much exposure to sunlight is not safe and may put people at a higher risk of getting skin damage. It may also increase their chances of acquiring skin cancer.
On the other hand, getting too little exposure can induce a possible vitamin D deficiency in people.
Further studies on the sunlight exposure and vitamin D supplementation may help improve the public health efforts for reducing influenza while decreasing the risk of skin cancer.
However, a lot of physicians seem to argue how it is important to improve the vitamin D levels in the body both via supplementation and sunlight exposure, researchers say.
At some point, the benefits of getting an extra bit of sunlight are higher as compared to its cost as per the scientists. The role of public health in this matter is to find this balance.
It is also important to remember that the time that you must spend outside in sunlight is not the same for every person and may vary. It depends on a number of factors such as where you live, the weather surrounding you, the time of the year, and the color of your skin.
People who live far away from the equator do not get enough sunlight exposure as compared to those living in the tropical areas. This puts the former at a higher risk of acquiring a vitamin D deficiency.
Black Americans and people with a darker skin tone are also at an increased risk since melanin, their skin pigment tends to block the ultraviolet radiation.
If you fear that you are not getting enough vitamin D, consult with a doctor. They may suggest taking vitamin D supplements or spending more time outdoors.
In addition to vitamin D, there are other ways to get protection from flu infection as well. As per the CDC, getting vaccinated, avoiding contact with sick people, and washing hands regularly is important.