You used to walk to work, bask on the beach, and spend Sunday mornings sitting in bright outdoor cafes. But now that your outdoor time consists primarily of quick sprints to the grocery store or brief moments on your stoop for a breath of fresh air, it can mean coming into contact with the sun way less often. So what happens to the body when you don’t get enough sunlight, and how much sun do we actually need?
Dr. Anna Cabeca, a physician and author of The Hormone Fix, tells HelloGiggles that we need to be in sunlight for about 10 to 20 minutes each day to feel our best. Of course, it’s still the right choice to stay inside during quarantine for the most part. But you can certainly go out whenever you want with the goal of catching a few rays—as long as you wear a mask and socially distance.
But if you want to know the slew of symptoms that can begin to form if you never see the light of day and how, over time, they can impact your body, read below to see what experts had to say.
Your “Internal Clock” Gets Thrown Off
Typically, the body feels awake in the morning when the sun rises and starts to get tired as the day goes on, before finally feeling ready for bed once it’s dark. But if you don’t get enough sunlight, that internal clock—also known as your circadian rhythm—can easily be thrown off.
“Almost every hormone in your body is released according to this ‘clock,’ including hormones that tell your body it is time for some restful sleep,” Dr. Cabeca says. “How does your clock get ‘set’? Well, it has a lot to do with your eyes detecting light and dark.”
This happens when you’re exposed to sunlight, which, in turn, triggers your brain to release cortisol and other hormones needed for the day. On the flip side, “when your eyes detect darkness, that tells the brain to release sleep hormones and wind down,” Dr. Cabeca says. “Keeping our internal clocks ‘set’ appropriately is one reason that seeing the sunrise and sunset is so important.” If you’ve been having trouble sleeping during quarantine or have been sleeping at odd hours of the night, getting more sunlight in the morning could help your body reset and get back on schedule.
You’ll Be in a Bad Mood
While there are a lot of reasons to feel down right now, a lack of sunlight can definitely make you feel worse. So if you’ve been struggling with feelings of sadness, anxiety, or lack of motivation, consider how much time you’ve been spending inside versus out.
Sunlight isn’t a cure-all for everything, but it can make you feel happier, Dr. Cabeca says, “because it boosts the production of feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin.” Even going one day without it can have a negative impact, she says, so make a point of sitting on your porch, reading on a sunny park bench, or going for a short walk around town to make sure your brain gets what it needs to help improve your mood.
You Might Run Low on Vitamin D
Vitamin D is something you get from food as well as from the sun. And it plays an important role in various aspects of your health, including the absorption of calcium, “which helps with bone growth,” Dr. Savita Ginde, the chief healthcare officer at Stride Community Health Center, tells HelloGiggles.
That’s why it’s important to keep in mind how a lack of sunlight, over time, could contribute to vitamin D deficiency. Beyond poor bone health, it “can cause a range of symptoms, such as extreme tiredness and low energy, muscle pain, or even depression,” Dr. Ginde says, “or it can amplify symptoms of already existing anxiety and depression.” To find out if that’s the case for you, your doctor can do a blood test to check your vitamin D levels.
From there, you may have to take a vitamin D supplement, spend 10 to 20 minutes in the sun each day, and/or pay more attention to what you’re eating. You’ll want to “make sure your diet is balanced with foods that provide ample amounts of energy and vitamin D, like eggs, salmon, cheese, and tuna,” Dr. Ginde says.
Again, taking the time to get some sun each day is super important and will help prevent issues like these. But if that doesn’t feel like an option, “just open your curtains and prop open a window for some fresh air and sunshine,” Dr. Ginde says. And you should be able to weather the rest of quarantine feeling more like yourself.