The Sunlight Solution: Why More Sunlight and Vitamin D Are Essential to Your Health

The Sunlight Solution: Why More Sunlight and Vitamin D Are Essential to Your Health

by Laurie Winn Carlson

Sunlight is a vital component of good health. Like plants that thrive in the sun, we humans too depend on sunlight, in our case for the production of Vitamin D. In the past few decades, however, cultural trends have steered us away from sun exposure. From fear of the potential dangers of UV radiation and the heavy promotion of sunscreen products to artificial work

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Sunlight is a vital component of good health. Like plants that thrive in the sun, we humans too depend on sunlight, in our case for the production of Vitamin D. In the past few decades, however, cultural trends have steered us away from sun exposure. From fear of the potential dangers of UV radiation and the heavy promotion of sunscreen products to artificial work and recreational environments centered on virtual reality, we are all spending much more time indoors and away from the sun. What are the health consequences?

In this informative overview of an often-neglected topic, historian Laurie Winn Carlson examines the historical and cultural factors that have created our indoor lifestyles and the medical evidence that suggests we need to get out in the sun.

She begins by tracing the behavior patterns that have caused a shift indoors. She notes that it was common decades ago for children to spend hours playing outside. Now the lure of video games and heavy sunscreen use have changed all that. Adults, also, live and work in the perpetual twilight of electric lighting. Though we feel comfortable, there is evidence that our bodies have not really adjusted to a lifestyle that is less than a century old.

Carlson explains the growing body of research that challenges government and health industry warnings against the dangers of sunlight. For example, the production of Vitamin D from sun exposure is crucial to maintaining the body’s calcium levels, an important factor for healthy bones, especially as we age. There is also evidence of the sun’s beneficial effects on psychological disorders such as seasonal depression or difficulty sleeping.

She concludes by arguing for a balanced approach to sun exposure. Although the risk of skin cancers should not be ignored, total avoidance of the sun can be just as risky to our health.

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Prometheus Books
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By laurie winn carlson
Prometheus Books
Copyright © 2009

Laurie Winn Carlson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-701-0


Early human societies recognized the sun's power and importance and developed rituals and myths to connect them to what was clearly the dominant life giver on earth. No single force affected life as much as the daily rising and setting of the sun, a relationship that shaped how early people lived and thought. Joy and reverence for sunrise-as well as fear of darkness-evolved into rites led by priests and priestesses who could speak with the sun god or a pantheon of sun-related deities, ensuring continued sunlight.

The realization that without sunlight life on earth would disappear was recognized long before the scientific understanding of photosynthesis. While sunlight's biological actions weren't understood, its significance to life and health was central to early civilizations that believed the sun was either the source of life or the first entity created by a higher being. Life revolved around the sun, so the fear that something might suddenly stop its daily appearance became a powerful motivating force in life and culture. Origin myths often explain the world as steeped in darkness then suddenly lit by the appearance of the sun. In many legends, the end of the world would follow the disappearance of the sun, something to be prevented at all costs.

Clearly, the sun could grant life with its warmth or take it away by disappearing, yet it remained a steady and cyclical power, a condition people attributed to their own efforts through prayer, dance, or even the extreme of human sacrifice. Cultures revered the sun in some way, but how they expressed this and the imagined sun god's character (whether compassionate and just, or cruel and punitive) varied greatly. Interpretations as well as people's behavior regarding the sun were defined by culture as well as by latitude and environment. Because those most dependent upon sunlight, such as agricultural societies and those in the far north, regarded the sun as extremely powerful in daily life, they often resorted to extremes in behavior to please or appease the sun. People living in cloudless areas with plentiful sunshine who relied on the sea rather than on agriculture for survival could regard the sun with less worry and more joy.

It was natural to link the powerful yet mysterious force of sunlight to the otherworld. How else were they to explain such a phenomenon that seemed alive and omniscient, with strength and cunning unfathomable to the people who depended upon it? As if by magic, it appeared on one side of the world and disappeared over the edge of the opposite side, leaving only darkness in its wake. The need for sunlight to illuminate life was essential because the darkness of night was overwhelming. Today, we rarely think of it unless we're stranded on a remote road without a flashlight, but without electricity at night we're as frightened and helpless as those long ago who heralded the sunrise because it wiped away the darkness.

Day and night were the most important rhythms in daily life, followed by the seasonal changes brought about by the sun's changing position in the sky. The sun's activity followed patterns but was never static and not to be taken for granted. The most important people in sun-worshiping civilizations were those who monitored the sun's activity-the astrologers and calendar keepers-because appeasing the sun required prayer, sacrifice, and ceremonies by everyone in the society. People felt compelled to interfere when the sun seemed to disappear or hide away, such as the elongated nights of winter. Desperately dependent on sunlight, they developed ceremonies to entice the sun to come out of hiding. A Japanese myth in which the sun hides in a cave and humans have to figure out how to lure it out is similar to other symbolic explanations for the sun's cyclical disappearance and reappearance. Trees decorated with shiny objects, prayers, dancing, and lighted fires were used to tempt the sun's curiosity so it would peek out again. Gaining favor with the sun ensured fertility, health, food, and happiness. On the other hand, the sun was an unforgiving god, one that shouldn't be taken for granted. Drought punished everyone and was seen as the sun god's displeasure with the people. Appeasing the sun became a valuable tool in social control and group stability, and individuals needed to behave by common norms for the good of the community. After all, the omniscient sun was overhead, watching everyone.

The seasonal variation in length of day and position of the sun had a profound effect on plants, animals, and humans. Lying low in the sky all winter, then moving directly overhead in summer, the sun's warmth and light changed considerably in higher latitudes. Agriculture relied on a complex understanding of the sun and seasons, requiring the development of calendars, solar festivals, and elaborate efforts to keep track of the sun. This being no simple matter, sites like England's Stonehenge were constructed as huge solar-measuring devices. People paid a great deal of attention to the sun's strength and position in the sky, giving it a variety of names depending upon the time of day or season. The spring sun was most appreciated because it launched the year into growth and vigor once more after a winter sun of reduced strength and presence.


Various interpretations of the sun's actions tried to explain its relationship to the natural world. The "solar myth" that was common in many cultures explained the sun rising up in the morning as a symbolic birth and dropping over the horizon at night as a death, often blamed on being swallowed by a monster. The daily battle between darkness and light was central to humanity's existence, therefore playing a prominent role in religion and cultural mythology. The seasonal sun was also given its place in myths of many cultures, which often described the sun as a baby born daily or seasonally; or a sun child that grew to take on monsters of the night. The sun could be a brilliant or a gloomy god, a friend or an enemy.

While the sun played a prominent role in creation tales, other stories evolved to explain culture and the human condition. Sun god narratives follow a birth, growth, death, and reincarnation pattern, replicating the sun's daily rising, disappearance, and reemergence. In most tales, the sun is a lone individual, male or female, who goes off on a mysterious and dangerous journey to the unknown world of darkness and returns triumphant or at least wiser. Mythic tales of travel to far-off unknown lands emerge from people's curiosity about where the sun went when it vanished from sight every evening. They parallel the Hero's Journey pattern in literature and myth, described by Joseph Campbell. Sun worship led to the emergence of the hero figure, exemplified well by Apollo, the Greek sun god.

Sun myths also helped decipher the workings of the natural world. Nocturnal animals, like owls and bats, are explained as creatures that failed to heed the dictates of proper behavior and were ultimately banished to a dark world. Cultures such as the Incas of Peru attributed their success to accepting and following the dictates of a larger authority, the sun. Believing their location in a fertile valley of the Andes was due to advice from the sun, they thought other cultures failed to match their achievements because they refused to obey authority.

Mythology created a way to interpret and respect the sun's centrality to life, but it remained distant, unapproachable, and nonhuman. Storytelling simply could not soften the fierceness of the sun; it remained impossible to look at directly and could never be considered mundane. Too much sun creates drought, sunstroke, and sunburn, and results in crop failures, famine, or death. Many tales describe scorching and burning in the flaming heat of a capricious or vindictive sun, such as the Greek tale of Icarus, whose waxen wings melted when he flew too close to the sun's heat. Sun gods could be warm and nurturing- welcomed in the springtime-or scorching and in need of appeasement. Understanding the sun's complex behavior was no simple task and many in the ranks of early priests and astronomers spent their lives charting the sun's movement across the sky, timing its appearance and disappearance and establishing patterns of behavior to optimize its warmth.

Many ancient cultures distinguished between the various rays of the sun, from the brilliant to the gloomy. Just as we note the axiom that Inuit people have many words to represent the many varieties of snow in their world, ancient people had an intense connection to sunlight and its various forms and strengths. Today, we might simply say cloudy or clear and let it go at that. Egyptians separated the sun into entities: the light separate from heat; the orb separate from its rays. Each represented a deity in a polytheistic sun religion.

Greek lore was shaped around the sun: gods threw disks, grabbed thunderbolts, and stayed on mountaintops, close to the sun. The colossal statue at Rhodes was a monument to the sun god Helios. The sun deities and their Greek followers fought the ultimate hell: banishment into total darkness in the form of Hades. The Romans picked up where the Greeks left off, expanding and polishing the sun-themed mythology. Apollo's chariot, whose wheel was the sun, raced across the sky each day, pulled by four horses representing the four types of sunlight: the rising reddish rays; midmorning sun, which is clear; noonday sun in its strength and glory; and the setting sun, which was said to kiss the earth.

The Greeks' panoply of sun-related deities influenced the Romans, who incorporated sun worship ideology into their daily lives, too. Their lives were spent indoors more than the Greeks, but access to sunlight shaped their technology, laws, and customs. In the first century CE, Romans invented window glass to let light inside buildings; pieces almost two inches wide and two feet long have been found in ancient ruins. Wealthy Romans in the imperial period had glazed windows in their homes and Roman gardeners even grew vegetables during winter in glass greenhouses. They also studied passive solar design for buildings and utilized the sun's light and warmth as much as possible, such as building public baths with windows on the south-facing side to let in maximum sunlight. Legislated "sun rights" protected access to sunlight, making it a civil offense for anyone to obstruct someone else's access to sunlight exposure, particularly for buildings that required solar energy for heating and lighting.

Using the sun's light and energy was practical: it provided free energy, acted as a bactericide, fungicide, and cleansing agent. Ultraviolet rays destroy microbes, which would have kept the baths healthier. Ironically, the Romans manipulated the sun so they could enjoy its benefits while staying indoors-behavior that evolved as a mark of social and economic status. Rather than sit outdoors under the natural sun rays like the Egyptians, privileged Romans moved inside, establishing a divide between those who labored under the sun (and tanned), and those who did not have to labor with their hands and bodies. Upper-class Roman women stayed indoors and out of sunlight, applying cosmetics to give them a pale complexion. Their children remained indoors, too, garnering the first recorded cases of childhood rickets. So, in this culture, being tan equaled being a mere laborer or even a slave. Not showing signs of being in the sun was a form of elitism or of high social standing. In much the same way, being obese or heavy was viewed as a sign of wealth.

In 100 CE, Soranus, a Roman physician, wrote Diseases of Women, including a chapter on "Why the Majority of Roman Children Are Distorted," which he attributed to their mothers allowing them to sit on cold stone floors. Roman mothers tried to prevent such distortions by wrapping infants tightly in swaddling clothes for their first year, so their bones would grow straight. Tight swaddling clothes remained in vogue for infants until the seventeenth century when physician and philosopher John Locke and others advocated a more natural and unrestricted childhood.


Sun worship was the foundation for a wide variety of world religions, including Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Druidism, and European paganism. The Aztecs of Mexico, the Incas of Peru, and many Native American religions also sprang from sun deification. Christianity, too, maintains vestiges of sun worship, largely because at the time it developed, sun-based religions were also soaring in popularity in the Western world.

Cultural appropriation helped smooth the slide from solar worship to Christianity. Beginning in the fourth century, the Christian church moved the celebration of Jesus' birth from January 6 to December 25-a direct challenge to the pagan sun god's popularity. Sunday, the weekly day to celebrate Christian religious worship, was another religious day borrowed from the Mithraists. The winter solstice was called the "Yule" in several languages, which meant "sun." People in as far-flung places as China, Egypt, and Greenland celebrated winter solstice, marked with bonfires, Yule logs, sacrifices, and merry-making. The lighting of a Christmas tree (now strung with electric lights) harks back to pagan solar ceremonies of lit torches, candles, and bonfires, used in midwinter to lure the sun back to life.


The influence of sun-themed symbolism appeared early in human history and persisted, even when submerged beneath the ideology of other religions. Symbols depicting the sun are found in petroglyphs of nearly all societies. The invention of the spoked wheel in 3500 BCE was possibly influenced by the use of circle and spoke images of the sun, which showed up in Neolithic and Early Bronze Age sites. The swastika, a common solar symbol in India and Western Europe, probably originated in symbols of the sun as a wheel. It featured right-handed spokes to symbolically follow the sun's path as it rolled from east to west. The symbol of the cross, too, was initially a solar religious symbol before Christians adopted it. Initially appearing as a combination of a circle and cross, it represented the sun and its extending rays. Similar symbols appear in artifacts found in Asia and the Americas, as well as the Egyptian ankh. Even the shining halo around heads of saints in European paintings represents a solar symbol borrowed from earlier cultures.

The round countenance of the sun itself continues to appear as it once did on petroglyphs. In the 1970s, the ubiquitous "happy face" symbol appeared everywhere and is still present in children's lives, where it's conveyed by authority figures as a mark of approval for behavior or schoolwork well done. Ironically, the sun's symbolism has been co-opted more recently by the largest retailer in the world: WalMart's bright yellow happy face symbol scattered throughout the store assures shoppers they are getting a great buy.

For many of us today, however, the sun holds little meaning in our lives except to brighten our spirits. Technology using solar-powered energy is commonplace in hand-calculators and nightlights; but our focus is elsewhere. We have barely tapped the technological potential of the sun. Creature comforts and responsibilities indoors have lulled us away from sunlight, until we seldom bask in it, preferring our own humanmade controlled environment. Artificial suntan lotions and blonde-streaked hair coloring make the sunless life even easier, so we don't realize that going without UV rays might have an effect on our bodies.

Rather than appreciating the sun and using it to our advantage, we worry about overexposure, skin cancer, and aging. The planet's disappearing protective ozone layer reminds us how vulnerable we are to the power of the sun's ultraviolet radiation, while new health concerns remind us how dependent we are upon that very light.


Excerpted from the SUNLIGHT SOLUTION by laurie winn carlson Copyright © 2009 by Laurie Winn Carlson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Laurie Winn Carlson (Dallas, OR) is an adjunct assistant professor of history at Western Oregon University and the author of twenty books including William J. Spillman and the Birth of Agricultural Economics and A Fever in Salem: A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials.

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