A little ray of sunshine but a big health boost

National Seniors Australia Chief Advocate Ian Henschke gets his shirt off while exploring the importance of the sun in our health and mood.

Autumn's well and truly here and winter's on the way. I can feel it in my bones. I'm blessed with a tree in our backyard that signals the change of seasons. It's a liquidambar that dominates the lawn and towers 10 metres above the Hills Hoist. 

My parents planted it as a sapling 40 years ago after their only big overseas trip. They visited Canada in "the fall" of 1979. Once it grew, the leaves and spiky fruit it drops drove my father mad.

The roots still regularly clog the sewer line.

Mum and Dad are long gone but the tree immortalises their maple leaf memories. Its multi-coloured cloak changes by the day and some days by the hour. Last week there was a chill in the night air. And the morning sun's so much lower in the northern sky it barely warms me.

Soon the last of the lush green leaves will turn rust red, then pale yellow. The wind, slowly but surely, strips them from the branches and sends them floating silently to earth, to form a desiccated carpet of colour. 

When the sky is overcast a sadness sweeps through my melancholic mind like a southerly through the suburbs. I never knew why, until I discovered we need sunlight as much as plants do.

There's clinical evidence SAD (seasonal affective disorder) is a type of depression. There's a season to be sad. It starts now and ends in spring every year. 

The best way beat it, to cure it even, is to light up your life. Our bodies rely on, and our brains need, solar power. UV therapy can help cure everything from insomnia to depression.

We need a dose of sunshine not just to feel happy but also to fight disease. Most Australians don't get enough vitamin D. It's made in our skin and is vital for human health. Getting too much sun can cause skin cancer. But getting too little weakens your immune system and puts you at risk of cancer.

Australian scientist Professor Rachel Neale, who did her PhD in skin cancer prevention, now says whenever she can do it safely, she exposes her body to sunlight. At this time of the year, 15 minutes at midday on about 20 per cent of your body does the trick. Neale's latest work is on how vitamin D can protect us from respiratory infections. 

The findings

Her research involved 78,000 participants and revealed those with low vitamin D were nearly twice as likely to get the type of lung infections now killing COVID-19 sufferers. 

You can take vitamin D in a pill but it's best to get it the way nature intended, and that's synthesised in your skin. Scottish dermatologist Richard Weller has also discovered our skin produces nitric oxide when exposed to sunlight. This causes our blood vessels to widen and lowers blood pressure. 

Nitric oxide has been used to help patients with lung infections breathe better, and there are even trials being conducted to see what effects UV radiation has on both the flu and COVID-19.

As they used to say on late night TV: "But wait, there's more!"

We've known since the 1960s that vitamin D helps the gut absorb calcium and is essential for healthy bones, but now there's evidence it also helps control cell growth, immune function and inflammation.

So, there you have it. The sun makes you feel happy, helps you stay healthy and may even fight off cancer and a range of other ills. I'm now making sure I take my shirt off and sit in what little sun there is at lunchtime. And it feels good. 

Maybe this is why we have so many songs singing the praises of sunlight, from Here Comes the Sun, to Walking on Sunshine.

Is it why the first religions were built around sun worship? As we head into winter do yourself a favour and have a sun bath when you can. I went to my skin specialist last week and had a dozen or so minor skin cancers burnt off. These were the price for my misspent youth. The end result of long days at the beach and the pool. But that sunlight I soaked up may have stopped me from suffering the scourge of modern teenagers.

They're often pale skinned and plagued by depression and worse.

Balance is key.

I'm always happiest at the end of summer and saddest in winter. So now I'm doing topless jogging and gardening too. Not a pretty sight but it works. Give it a try.

Written by Ian Henschke, Chief Advocate at National Seniors Australia.

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