The discussions from women on my coaching programmes who live in the Northern Hemisphere are interesting. I even have one lady who works up in the Arctic Circle – with very little sunlight up there during the winter months and because she is moving through menopause, she didn’t realise her vulnerability with her mental and immune health because of where she works in winter!
The importance of one of the most important natural resilience tools in our toolbox, can’t be overlooked. Although on a dreary, cloudy day in the Northern Hemisphere when it’s dark by 5pm, this can easily be overlooked when it comes to managing our mental health in menopause.
Our body relies on sunlight exposure to help hormonal balance. Not in the heat of the day obviously for those of you living in the Southern Hemisphere. And for those of you working inside all day, it can be a bit challenging to find some sun, but do your best.
If you have darker skin, then some sunlight exposure is even more important. As is getting Vitamin D levels checked. Janice, up there in America, now understands the importance of this aspect of her health as a woman with darker colour skin. With more melanin in her skin, which is to help protect against harmful UV rays from the sun, darker skin types reduces the UV radiation available for Vitamin D synthesis (production in the skin.
So in winter months, despite the temptation to stay indoors, 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 during menopause, unless there is an underlying clinical condition present.
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 thinking. 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) and enhance our sleep, it also helps us to stay cool.
Our skin is our largest organ and it is full of oestrogen receptors. Hence, our menopause transition causes changes to our skin as oestrogen production declines.
As oestrogen declines in the skin, our sweat glands become less efficient too. 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, so we must look after our skin and part of this role, is to allow it some exposore to natural light during the day. This helps to keep us cool!
“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.
It’s intriguing when you look at the effect of sunlight on human health. Many of us know that in Switzerland for example, as in many other countries, including 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 immune 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.
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.
As I poured over the women’s health literature, I began to understand that sun-health messages have changed a lot over our generation.
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 viral load on numerous people around the world has increased with the pandemic, 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 3 main reasons as to why we should no longer shun-the-sun:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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)/ MyMT™ Founder/ 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