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Sunlight naturally boosts our immune systems

Sensible sun exposure has many health benefits.

Sunlight naturally boosts our immune systems

Many are the result of vitamin D production, which occurs when your skin is exposed to UV light, but many others are unrelated to vitamin D.

Research shows both blue light and UVA light boost the activity of T lymphocytes. As little as five to 10 minutes of sun exposure was needed to boost immune cell activity.

The healthiest blue light is from the sun, as it is balanced by near-infrared radiation, which activates cytochrome C oxidase in your mitochondria and helps optimise ATP production.

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How Sun Exposure Improves Your Immune Function

By Dr. Joseph Mercola

Note: This article is a reprint. It was originally published on 23 January 2017.

Mounting research confirms that sun avoidance may be at the heart of a large number of health problems. Not only does your body produce vitamin D in response to sun exposure on bare skin, but sunlight also produces several other health benefits that are unrelated to vitamin D production.

In fact, humans appear to have a lot in common with plants in this regard – we both need direct sun exposure to optimally thrive, and while artificial lighting sources offering specific light spectrums may be helpful for various problems, ideally we need the full spectrum of light that natural sunlight offers.

More recently, researchers at Georgetown University Medical Centre (“GUMC”) published a laboratory study using cells in Petri dishes, showing that exposure to blue and ultraviolet (“UV”) light increases T cell activity – white blood cells involved in immune function and fighting infections.1,2,3

Sunlight Is a Natural Immune Booster

This is thought to be the first study showing an impact of light on this particular type of immune cell, so more research is needed to verify the results. However, there’s plenty of evidence in the medical literature confirming that sunlight has immune-boosting properties.

In this study,4 light was found to stimulate the production of hydrogen peroxide, which boosted the activity of T lymphocytes. As little as five to 10 minutes of sun exposure were needed to boost immune cell activity. As noted in one news report:5

While the researchers appear hopeful that blue light alone might be a valuable immune-boosting treatment, it’s important to realise that the biological effects of light can be very complex, and it’s important to get it right.

As explained by Dr. Alexander Wunsch, a world-class expert on photobiology, excessive exposure to blue light – such as that from LED lighting, which is primarily blue and devoid of near-infrared found in sunlight and incandescent lighting – can be quite harmful, and may be a significant risk factor for age-related macular degeneration (“AMD”).

The healthiest blue light is from the sun, as it is balanced by near-infrared radiation, which has many important biological functions. Importantly, near-infrared radiation will activate cytochrome C oxidase in your mitochondria and help to optimise ATP production.

T Cells Are Intrinsically Photosensitive

For a long time, it was believed mammals only had photosensitive cells in the eye. We’re now finding photosensitive cells in many other areas of the human body.

As noted by the authors, this study demonstrates that “T lymphocytes possess intrinsic photosensitivity and this property may enhance their motility on skin.” In other words, T cells sense and respond to light.

Blue light specifically triggers the production of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) in T cells, which triggers a chemical cascade that results in increased T cell motility. The increased motility or activity, in turn, allows the immune cells to function better.

Interestingly, once the T cells are activated they also alter their antioxidant capacity – an effect that appears to allow for greater H2O2 production in response to light.

The spectral sensitivity of T cells peaked at both ~350 nanometres (“nm”), which is in the ultraviolet A (“UVA”) range, and ~470 nm, which is in the blue spectrum. The latter (470 nm light) has previously been shown to kill methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (“MRSA”) in vitro.6

According to lead author Gerard Ahern, PhD, an associate professor at the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology in Georgetown, some of the immunity benefits typically attributed to vitamin D may actually be due to this newfound mechanism.

While there may be some truth to that, previous research has teased out a number of different mechanisms for vitamin D’s activity, including its bactericidal and immune-boosting effects.

For example, researchers have found vitamin D acts directly on the beta defensin 2 gene (which encodes an antimicrobial peptide) and the NOD2 gene (which alerts cells to the presence of invading microbes).7 Vitamin D is also involved in the production of over 200 antimicrobial peptides that help fight all sorts of infections.

Other Health Benefits of Sunlight Unrelated to Vitamin D

This certainly isn’t the first time sunlight has been shown to produce biological effects that are important for good health. Other health benefits of sun exposure include the following. To learn more, I recommend reading through ‘Sunlight: For Better or For Worse? A Review of Positive and Negative Effects of Sun Exposure’, published in the journal Cancer Research Frontiers.8

Protect Your Baby’s Health with Breastfeeding and Vitamin D

Vitamin D – which is best obtained from sensible sun exposure – is particularly important during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Not only are pregnant women advised to measure their vitamin D level and make sure it’s at least 40 nanograms per millilitre (ng/mL), after birth, the American Academy of Paediatrics (“AAP”) recommends giving infants a daily dose of 400 international units (“IU”) of vitamin D for the first two months.

Unfortunately, few parents follow these recommendations, thereby putting their children at risk for vitamin D deficiency and related health problems. Research by the Mayo Clinic highlights this risk, noting that the nutritional benefits of breastfeeding do not include vitamin D – especially if the mother is deficient.40,41,42

In an ideal situation, a woman will have optimised her vitamin D before getting pregnant, making sure to maintain a level of 40 to 60 ng/mL for as long as she’s pregnant and breastfeeding because if the mother is deficient in vitamin D, the child, and her milk, will also be deficient. Alternatively, you can give your baby vitamin D drops.

According to previous research43 by Bruce W. Hollis, PhD, and colleagues at the Medical University of South Carolina Paediatrics, mothers who took 6,400 IUs per day of vitamin D could safely supply their breast milk with vitamin D to meet, if not exceed, her own and her nursing infant’s vitamin D requirements. This may also be a more convenient if not safer alternative to giving the supplement to your baby directly.

How to Reduce Your Risk of Skin Cancer While Benefiting from Sensible Sun Exposure

An important risk factor for melanoma is overexposure to UV radiation either from direct sunlight or tanning beds/lamps. Frying yourself for several hours on the weekend here and there is not a wise choice. You want to take precautions to avoid sunburn at all costs. If you’re going to the beach, bring long-sleeved cover-ups and a wide-brimmed hat, and cover up as soon as your skin starts to turn pink.

Realise that unless you have very dark skin you don’t need to spend hours in the sun. For lighter-skinned people, optimising your vitamin D may require mere minutes in the sun with minimal clothing. Other health effects associated with sun exposure beyond vitamin D production also appear to be fairly fast-acting.

In the featured study, T cells were activated within five to 10 minutes of light exposure. Granted, the cells were in a petri dish, and further research is needed to see whether T cells in your skin react as quickly to sun exposure.

Overall, the evidence suggests the benefits of sensible sun exposure far outweigh the risks of skin cancer. To further minimise your risks while maximising the benefits of UV exposure, here are a few factors to consider. If you pay close attention to these, you can determine, within reason, safe exposure durations.

  • You should know your skin type based on the Fitzpatrick skin type classification system, which has been around for decades. The lighter your skin, the less exposure to UV light is necessary. The downside is that lighter skin is also the most vulnerable to damage from overexposure.
  • For very fair skinned individuals and those with photodermatitis, any sun exposure may be unwanted and they should carefully measure vitamin D levels while ensuring they have an adequate intake of vitamin D, vitamin K2, magnesium and calcium.
  • For most individuals, safe UV exposure is possible by knowing your skin type and the current strength of the sun’s rays. There are several apps and devices to help you optimise the benefits of sun exposure while mitigating the risks. Also, be extremely careful if you have not been in the sun for some time. Your first exposures of the year are the most sensitive, so be especially careful to limit your initial time in the sun.

Sources and References

About the Author

Dr. Joseph Mercola is the founder and owner of, a Board-Certified Family Medicine Osteopathic Physician, a Fellow of the American College of Nutrition and a New York Times bestselling author.  He publishes multiple articles a day covering a wide range of topics on his website

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