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 Health Benefits of Morning Sunlight:

Ancient Ayurveda and Modern Science

by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD

This article is adapted from 16 Super Biohacks for Longevity: Shortcuts to a Healthier, Happier, Longer Life.

Can something as simple as taking a walk in the beautiful golden rays of sunrise actually produce measurable health benefits? Although I had heard this recommendation from one of the greatest experts in Ayurveda, I had no idea how the mechanics of the physiology were involved until…new research suggested how this seemingly simple biohack might work.

First, what is sunlight? Second, how does it affect our body and mind? Third, What chemicals are affected by light which have powerful effects on the body? Vitamin D, of course, is produced by light and has many effects on the body.  Melatonin is another important chemical produced by the pineal gland in the absence of light at night.

Sunlight

Why is the sky blue at noon, but golden red at sunrise and sunset? The light from the sun is a combination of visible light, ultraviolet light, and infrared light. The visible light from the sun is white light, which is made up of all the colors of the rainbow. Clouds are white because they contain droplets of water which reflect all the colors to produce white. At noon, we mostly see a blue sky, because it turns out that that blue wavelengths of light are short, just the right size to be scattered by air molecules in the atmosphere. Blue light is everywhere in the sky and dominates our vision.

At sunrise, when the sun is low in the sky, the rays of light have to travel a longer distance and through more of the atmosphere before we can see it. The blue and other shorter wavelengths can be scattered away from our vision so that the red and yellow rays are more obvious. The light at sunrise also has infrared and Near infrared (NIR) light that we can’t see but which has a big effect on our body. There are studies which show the many beneficial effects of the right dose of infrared light and it is now used in different types of therapy. Certainly, too much sunlight can be bad for our skin, causing UV damage and even skin cancer. Please note we are not advocating a whole day in the sun, just a few minutes at and around sunrise.

The Beneficial Effects of Light

The most obvious effect of morning sunlight is that it stimulates a newly discovered pigment in our eyes known as melanopsin. Melanopsin is produced by special cells in the eye known as intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells. Unlike the rods and cones in our retina, these cells are not concerned with vision but with non-vision-related functions of light, most importantly on resetting biological rhythms. They send signals to different parts of your brain, which do several beneficial things such as turning off the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone, in our pineal gland and helping increase cortisol, the waking hormone. We normally think of cortisol as a stress hormone, but our body requires a certain amount of cortisol to function, especially in the morning. The main effect of morning light is to stimulate the main biological clock in our brain, which in turn synchronizes all the numerous clocks in your body to be in tune with the great natural rhythms of nature. This is critically important since being out of tune with our daily circadian rhythms increases the risk for many diseases.

We could examine the effects of all the different colors of light but let’s focus specifically on the red light.  Red light therapy, which is also known as low-level light therapy (LLLT) and photobiomodulation, has shown many positive effects. Red (630 to 660 nm) and Near infrared (NIR) (810 to 850 nm) light can increase ATP production in our mitochondria, stimulate cerebral blood flow, cause the regrowth of neurons (a process called neurogenesis), and positively affect certain neurological and psychiatric disorders.

It has been suggested by Dr. Mohammad Muneeb Khan, an oncologist in England, that early morning sunlight, which containing Near infrared light, penetrates our skin and stimulates the production of melatonin from the mitochondria. The mitochondria are the powerplants in virtually every cell of our body. They even have their own DNA which is different from the DNA in the cell nucleus. The melatonin produced here is independent of the melatonin produced by the pineal gland. More importantly, it has been shown to be an extremely powerful antioxidant with various healing properties.

What an example of an easy biohack? Get up in the morning, talk a walk, and experience the light of sunrise. It is totally enjoyable and has many side-benefits. It has been and still is recommended by Ayurveda, one of the oldest and greatest traditions of natural medicine.  We have to wonder how many other ancient biohacks will become modern scientific rediscoveries and allow us to live a healthier, happier, and longer lives? Time and more research will tell.

Selected References:

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  3. Do MTH. Melanopsin and the Intrinsically Photosensitive Retinal Ganglion Cells: Biophysics to Behavior. Neuron. 2019 Oct 23;104(2):205-226. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2019.07.016. PMID: 31647894; PMCID: PMC6944442.
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  7. Reiter RJ, Ma Q, Sharma R. Melatonin in Mitochondria: Mitigating Clear and Present Dangers. Physiology (Bethesda). 2020 Mar 1;35(2):86-95. doi: 10.1152/physiol.00034.2019. PMID: 32024428.
  8. Melhuish Beaupre LM, Brown GM, Gonçalves VF, Kennedy JL. Melatonin’s neuroprotective role in mitochondria and its potential as a biomarker in aging, cognition and psychiatric disorders. Transl Psychiatry. 2021 Jun 2;11(1):339. doi: 10.1038/s41398-021-01464-x. PMID: 34078880; PMCID: PMC8172874.
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  10. Engel KW, Khan I, Arany PR. Cell lineage responses to photobiomodulation therapy. J Biophotonics. 2016 Dec;9(11-12):1148-1156. doi: 10.1002/jbio.201600025. Epub 2016 Jul 8. PMID: 27392170.
  11. Srivastava AK, Roy Choudhury S, Karmakar S. Near-Infrared Responsive Dopamine/Melatonin-Derived Nanocomposites Abrogating in Situ Amyloid β Nucleation, Propagation, and Ameliorate Neuronal Functions. ACS Appl Mater Interfaces. 2020 Feb 5;12(5):5658-5670. doi: 10.1021/acsami.9b22214. Epub 2020 Jan 27. PMID: 31986005.
  12. Reiter RJ, Sharma R, Rosales-Corral S. Anti-Warburg Effect of Melatonin: A Proposed Mechanism to Explain its Inhibition of Multiple Diseases. Int J Mol Sci. 2021 Jan 14;22(2):764. doi: 10.3390/ijms22020764. PMID: 33466614; PMCID: PMC7828708.
  13. Dr Andrew Huberman, Neurobiologicist and Associate Professor at Stanford talks about the value of sunlight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBjUR16AiBMD