By Bhaswati Bhattacharya
Some of us remember when every talk show on health discussed the dangers of being in the sun without sunscreen. Sun was the evil force that prevented us from leading healthy lives. Products that protected us from the rays of the sun abounded: visors, sunglasses, UV-prevention glass windows, car glass covers, and special lotions beyond sunscreen.
Increasing data on the benefits of basking in rays of the rising sun now counterbalance the data on melanomas and the need for sunscreen and protection from the sun. The presence of people with melanin has also come under consideration as a form of protection. The Sanskrit sloka from the Matsya Purana, one of the ancient books of Indian philosophy, tells us that arogyam bhaskara-dichhet (early morning sun rays) are the giver of good health.
Considered the oldest systematic philosophy and science conceived by man and continuously followed through time to the present day, the Vedas are not a religion but rather a worldview of living in alignment with the subtle forces of nature. Written circa 10,000 years BCE, the Vedas are indisputably the oldest books of wisdom of man still in continuous use. They describe forces only recently discovered by physics and chemistry, especially around the forces and uses of light and sound in all their manifestations. Several rituals emphasized the importance of the early rising sun, including Surya Namaskar, a series of yoga movements facing the morning sun, with mantras to be evoked facing it, like the one my mother does each morning.
Of course, biology tells us that the biosphere is sustained by the Sun, and weather patterns are deeply affected by the undulating heating and cooling during rotation and revolution of the earth around the sun. But there was something specific about the rays of the morning sun being more beneficial than its rays at any other time of day. The ninth chapter of the Atharva Veda describes twenty-two diseases that can be cured by the rays of the rising Sun.
The Vedas claim that the sun can heal heart problems, jaundice and anemia. Long ridiculed as far-fetched claims, science is now discovering the importance of vitamin D, produced by the skin from the sun, in modulating hormones and enzymes that affect the heart and blood. Indeed, premature babies are laid in incubators with UV light to cure their neonatal jaundice. Over a thousand different genes, governing almost every tissue in the body, are now known to be regulated by the active form of the vitamin D3, including several involved in calcium metabolism, endorphin and pain regulation, blood pressure through modulation of renin in the kidneys and the optimal functioning of the neuromuscular and immune systems. There is also a connection between vitamin D deficiency and the development of diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Vitamin D also induces cathelicidin, a polypeptide that effectively combats both bacterial and viral infections.
When people are exposed to sunlight or very bright artificial light in the morning, their nocturnal melatonin production occurs sooner, and they enter into sleep more easily at night. This hormone from the pineal gland also plays an important role in countering infection, inflammation, cancer and auto-immunity. This affects our clock genes, which in turn change the way proteins and enzymes are made in our body, and how they function. When our body’s hormones are produced in sequential harmony, many medical problems disappear.
Unprotected sunlight exposure has been discouraged mainly due to melanoma risk. However, reports also state that 0.1% of the human population is at risk of UV-light-related diseases, whereas 50% of the human population is at risk of other diseases from lack of sunlight exposure. The safest compromise seems to be to take in sunlight when the UV Index is low. In general, the intensity of UV rays at the end of the day is higher than at the beginning of the day. But the intake of infrared rays is also important, and we find them among the orange-red rays of the sun at sunrise and sunset. During this time, we can benefit from the power of natural infrared therapy, which penetrates several cell layers deep to heal our tissues.
The South Asia Times Columnist Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya is a Fulbright Specialist 2018‐2023 in Public Health and Clinical Asst Professor of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York. Her bestselling book Everyday Ayurveda is published by Penguin Random House. [email protected] | www.drbhaswati.com