Janice from Maryland in America messaged me last week – “It’s been weekends of snow here in the USA/Maryland. I have been feeling the blues. Today is Sunny and 50+ degrees. I’m so happy and thankful to be out and just stand in the Sun!”
For darker skin women like Janice, colour does indeed matter. I was so pleased that she was following the advice I had for her as a darker-skin woman transitioning through menopause. Getting out in sunlight is not only good for managing her hot flushes and sleep, but also good for her energy levels. It’s been a long winter in many parts of the world, and living inside due to the pandemic has been tough for many women in menopause, including Janice. But the importance of one of the most important natural resilience tools in our toolbox, cannot be over-emphasized when it comes to managing our symptoms in menopause – we need sun! Not in the heat of the day obviously for those of you living in the Southern Hemisphere, and for those of you still in lock-down and/or self-isolation, it can be a bit challenging to find some sun, so do what you can when you can! I loved that Janice now understands the importance of this aspect of her health as a woman with darker colour skin. She has more melanin in her skin and whilst this is protective against harmful UV rays from the sun, recent research, show that her skin type reduces the UV radiation available for Vitamin D synthesis in the skin. Despite the temptation to stay indoors at the moment, the challenge for women going through menopause, is that getting some sun matters – darker skin women need up to 25 minutes of exposure and lighter skin women need less.
‘It has been shown that the white-skinned population of the UK are able to meet their vitamin D needs with short, daily lunchtime exposures to sunlight. However, to meet vitamin D requirements, skin type V (darker skin) individuals in the UK need ~25 min daily sunlight at lunchtime, from March to September. This makes several assumptions, including that forearms and lower legs are exposed June–August; only exposing hands and face at this time is inadequate.’ [Webb, Kazantzidis et al. (2018)].
From our sleep to our immune health to our moods, motivation and depression, we shouldn’t shun the sun.
Exposing our body to natural sunlight is as important as our food and water and for a generation of women, who have been taught to get out of the sun as much as they can, as we go through our biological transition into menopause, it’s time to change this. Even in countries with high sunshine hours at the moment, such as Australia and New Zealand, it’s important to allow our skin to have some exposure to natural sunlight. Not only does this boost serotonin production (our mood hormone), it also helps us to stay cool.
You see, our skin is our largest organ and it is full of oestrogen receptors. As we move through menopause, our skin changes as it ages.
It changes as we lose oestrogen in menopause and what we need to know is that it tightly regulates our body temperature as well. Whether there is a heat-wave or not, you must look after your skin and not swamp it in endless chemical-rich skin creams. If you do, it can’t do it’s job of cooling you down. Especially if you are outside exercising. Because as we lose oestrogen, we also lose the ability of our blood vessels and sweat glands to dilate. They become less elastic and this prevents our skins cooling mechanism from doing the job that it was designed to do. Losing the elasticity of our eccrine sweat glands is part of the body’s natural ageing, of which our menopause transition is too. So don’t block them up and get them exposed to some natural light, even when you want to beat the heat and stay inside.
“Our biology is set-up to work in partnership with the sun.” (p.3) states chrono-biologist Dr Linda Geddes, author of ‘Chasing the Sun’. My own women’s healthy ageing studies support this too. As I worked to understand my own symptom chaos, I realised that part of the menopause-hot-flush puzzle lies with our skin. Our skin is loaded with oestrogen receptors and as we lose oestrogen during our menopause transition, the effect of low sunlight exposure on our symptoms is more than we think … and I’m not just talking about Vitamin D either.
Turning around hormonal health and re-balancing our metabolism for menopause starts with the raw ingredients. One of these is getting some sunlight on your skin.
In Switzerland as in many other countries, such as New Zealand, sick children used to get sent to ‘sanitoriums’, but in effect, they should have been called ‘SUNitoriums’, because the healing power of sunlight was a strategy used to turn around their health, especially the bone disease called rickets.
By the late 1800s, approximately 90% of all children living in industrialized Europe and North America had some manifestations of this crippling bone disease, according to estimates based on autopsy studies of the day (Benefits of Sunlight, Enviro News, 2008)Doctors throughout Europe and North America began promoting whole-body sunbathing to help prevent rickets.
Even in the elderly, the healing power of sun helps everything from depression to diverticulitis, because of the role of Vitamin D3. You don’t need too much, but 15-20 minutes of sun a day is enough to keep you ‘topped up’. Some of us need more than others depending on where we live, if we work inside all day and how depressed we feel during our menopause transition.
For those of you experiencing increased anxiety, hot flushes or you are on anti-depressants, you also need to use the power of the sun to help improve your health and to help you reduce your reliance on anti-depressants as you get through menopause if you so desire (with your Doctor’s permission of course). Changing your food, improving your sleep and doing the correct type and amount of exercise are also important, and it’s all of these factors that I help you to bring together in the MyMT™ online programmes.
As women in our mid-life years, how we live our life is vastly different from our mother’s generation. We also live in a world that is vastly different from our ancient physiology. As we juggle our work, parenting and home life, these factors also have a significant bearing on our symptoms in menopause, especially our sleep, hot flushes, immune health and feelings of depression. If you’ve been following my articles for a while, you will have read about the negative effects of stress on our sleep, weight gain and anxiety as we transition through menopause.
But there’s another effect on our symptoms, health and immunity as we move through menopause and this is the amount of sunlight that we are exposed to.
We must try and get natural sunlight on our skin and walking outside is a great way to achieve this. It’s important to help reduce our symptoms, improve our mood and anxiety during menopause and yes, sunlight exposure boosts our immunity too.
I became really interested in understanding the research about the powerful health effects of sunlight (in our eyes and on our skin) when I was trying to un-tangle my sleep and joint-health problems in menopause. I now teach this to the thousands of women who join me in the MyMT™ programmes. It’s so important for our weight loss too, especially those who work inside all day or do shift work.
When I learnt about the effect that lowering oestrogen during our menopause transition has on our skin and how this impacts our Vitamin D absorption and production, it made sense why so many women end up with heart and immune health changes as well as osteoporosis in their post-menopause years. The question is ‘why’?
As I poured over the women’s health literature, I began to understand that sun-health messages have changed a lot over our generation.
I still remember my mother telling all of us kids to ‘get outside and get some sun’. So we did and we didn’t put sunscreen on either. We just went outside and played for hours with much of our skin exposed to the sun and if you were like me, also in bare-feet. If this was you too, then you can thank your mother because she has probably set you up with a lovely strong immune system that hopefully, is now standing you in good stead as you age. Evidence is suggesting that some sunshine exposure significantly reduces the incidence of serious diseases – assuming you don’t overdose on it and burn your skin, which of course is not only painful, but damages collagen fibres and decreases Vitamin A in the skin.
As the pandemic wears on and some of you are now being vaccinated (and according to numerous women on my programme, also now getting some symptoms obviously), then I want to remind you that exposure to sunlight isn’t only about improving Vitamin D levels.
Research from the University of Scotland, reports that sunlight exposure also lowers blood pressure and improves immune health.
Production of this blood pressure-reducing compound – called nitric oxide – is separate from the body’s manufacture of vitamin D, which rises after exposure to sunshine. Until now, Vitamin D had been thought to solely explain the sun’s benefit to human health, the scientists said. But the report states that over 1,000 different genes governing virtually every tissue in the body, are now thought to be regulated by 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 (1,25[OH]D), the active form of the vitamin, including several involved in calcium metabolism and neuro-muscular, immune system functioning, and blood pressure management. As the lead researcher, Dr Richard Weller, says:
“We suspect that the benefits to heart health of sunlight will outweigh the risk of skin cancer. The work we have done provides a mechanism that might account for this, and also explains why dietary vitamin D supplements alone will not be able to compensate for lack of sunlight. We now plan to look at the relative risks of heart disease and skin cancer in people who have received different amounts of sun exposure. If this confirms that sunlight reduces the death rate from all causes, we will need to reconsider our advice on sun exposure.”
For those of you who are struggling with immune system issues, or your sleep, or your moods and you work mainly inside all day and then you head home to all the numerous jobs that have piled up as well, can you have a wee think about your exposure to sunlight during the day please? And here’s why.
My 5 main reasons as to why we should no longer shun-the-sun:
- Oestrogen receptors in our skin help to convert sunlight into Vitamin D3. This is why during our menopause transition, the loss of oestrogen can inhibit this process. Even more so, if you aren’t out in the sun very much, or if the winters are severe. More recent research reveals that Vitamin D3 is not really a vitamin, but a powerful hormone that affects nearly every other hormone in our body, including the hormones that control our circadian rhythm and sleep, thyroid health and hot flushes. This is why this is just one of the strategies that women listen to in the first module in both of the MyMT programmes, which I’ve called ‘Sleep All Night’.
- Like plants, our human physiology is designed to convert the suns’s rays to life-giving energy. This happens deep in our mitochondrial cells which also respond to the natural cycles of light and dark. When our sleep patterns are disrupted as occurs for millions of women during menopause, this impacts our daily energy levels too. My focus is for you to turn this around. We can’t do what we need to do in our day, when our energy levels are at rock-bottom! That’s why getting back sleeping all night is the foundation of sorting out our hot flushes, night sweats, weight gain and depression. It’s what I teach you to do at the start of your 12 week journey in the MyMT programmes.
- When sunlight hits the skin our body releases endorphins – the same ‘feel good’ hormones that produce a ‘runner’s high’. It’s why in my ‘Rebuild My Fitness’ online programme, women learn how important it is to exercise outside in natural surroundings, but not in the heat of the day, which may exacerbate the loss of magnesium, calcium and potassium – minerals that our heart, nerves and muscles need for their optimal function.
- Exposing your eyes to morning sunlight helps your melatonin production at night. This is your ‘go to sleep’ hormone and during menopause, low oestrogen has a significant effect on our melatonin levels. Sleeping tablets or artificial melatonin medication are not necessarily the answer either. What you need is sun in your eyes in the morning and this is just one of the powerful sleep-improving strategies that I teach you. Melatonin production also shows a seasonal variation relative to the availability of light, with the hormone produced for a longer period in the winter than in the summer.
- Getting sun and regular sleep cycles helps you to lose weight. Every major organ in the body is under the command of your genetically pre-determined biological clock which needs sunlight. This includes your gut, liver, heart, pancreas and bowels. It’s why sleeping all night and turning around your circadian rhythm is crucial to your ability to lose your menopause belly-fat. If you don’t, then a hormone called leptin, which tells your brain that you feel full, is disrupted. This is why many shift workers struggle with their weight. As I say to women who join me on my 12 week Transform Me weight loss programme, “If you aren’t sleeping, you aren’t losing and it’s why your sleep-management module is the first one I want you to listen to and put into action.”
For those of you in the Northern Hemisphere, it takes around 4-6 weeks to turn winter skin into ‘summer’ skin, so do it progressively. And if like me, you live in the Southern Hemisphere, then the sun’s rays can be especially harmful, so don’t go out in the heat of mid-day.
A note about SHIFT -WORK:
I have numerous women on my programme who are nurses or factory workers, whereby shift work is a constant in their lives. It’s tough for those of them going through menopause, because sleep (or lack of it) becomes a constant focus of attention! But one of the main issues with shift workers is how to increase melatonin levels before they go to bed if they work all night and then drive home and collapse into bed, so this is something that I work individually with shift-workers on.
The other issue is meal-timing. Health and sleep researchers also understand that regular meal times matter to our circadian rhythm and when working shifts, this can get out of alignment too. When this happens and we eat irregular meals at irregular times, this shifts our finely tuned metabolism which is also under the control of our biological clock. Lydia was doing shift-work as a nurse and so loved what she learnt on the MyMT ‘Transform Me’ programme.
Dr Wendy Sweet, PhD/ Women’s Healthy Ageing Researcher & MyMT™ Founder & Coach. [Member: Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine]
Benefits of Sunlight: A bright spot for human health. Environmental Health Perspectives, 116(4), April 2008.
Geddes, L. (2019). Chasing the Sun: The new science of sunlight and how it shapes our bodies and minds. London: Profile Books.
Lyman, M. (2019). The remarkable life of the skin. London: Penguin Books.
Webb, A. R., Kazantzidis, A., Kift, R. C., Farrar, M. D., Wilkinson, J., & Rhodes, L. E. (2018). Colour Counts: Sunlight and skin type as drivers of Vitamin D deficiency at UK latitudes. Nutrients, 10(4), 457. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10040457