By: Shivani Shah
The east and west side highways are some of my favorite places to run in NYC. On morning runs along the east side, I pass by groups of elderly Chinese men and women practicing tai chi. No matter how painful the run is, I find myself smiling at the sight. Tai chi is an ancient art that, in addition to physical movement, integrates morning sun viewing into the practice. This time of year proves mentally and physically draining for many people. A good deal of us are prone to feeling down during the fall and winter months, and this is only exacerbated by the shorter and darker days. Whether you live in a state that enforces daylight saving time or not, this time of year demonstrates what we instinctively know to be true - light is of paramount importance to our physical and mental wellbeing.
Our cardinal light source, the sun, has been revered as a source of life and nourishment. The earliest record of sun exposure yielding health benefits came from the Egyptians some 6000 years ago. Although sun exposure is most popularly known as a causative element in skin cancer, it is also linked with a host of positive health outcomes. For example, it is widely known that sunlight provides Vitamin D, which is crucial for immunity and other health outcomes. However, scientists at Georgetown University Medical Center recently found an immune-supporting role of sunlight exposure that is separate from vitamin D production. Their research found that low levels of blue light, found in sunlight, helps activate key immune cells.
It can be difficult to make time for sunlight every day. As the days shorten, I encourage you to be mindful and deliberate about your light exposure, whether it be natural or artificial. The following is not medical advice. Please be sure to consult your physician before implementing new practices into your routine.
1) Start each day with sunlight. As little as 2 minutes (but ideally 10 to 15) every morning can help promote positive metabolic and hormonal functions.
2) Most notably, morning sunlight triggers the release of cortisol which boosts alertness. Most of us know cortisol as the “stress hormone” and associate it with negative health outcomes. While this is true, it is lesser known that humans naturally have elevated cortisol levels in the morning, to promote wakefulness. Viewing sunlight upon waking will also regulate your circadian rhythm for the rest of the day by serving as a timer for melatonin release. And no, receiving sunlight through a window doesn’t count. Windows filter out a majority of the blue light wavelengths that are critical for stimulating the eyes.
2) Keep your workspace well-lit. Not everyone can get outdoors in the morning; however, artificial light can still provide benefits. For the first half of your day, set your workspace up so that you are getting as much overhead light as possible (but still comfortable). This light stimulation of the eyes helps to further facilitate your bodily wakefulness mechanisms.
3) Avoid late-night light. We are all guilty of the “mindless scrolling before bed” routine. Repeated and regular exposure to bright light during late night hours triggers a suppression of dopamine, among a host of other problems.
The winter is already a mentally difficult time for many who struggle with seasonal affective disorder. When possible, switch out the pre-bedtime Netflix for a book.
Aldahan, Adam S., et al. “SUN Exposure in History.” JAMA Dermatology, vol. 152, no. 8, 2016, p. 896., https://doi.org/10.1001/
“American Academy of Sleep Medicine: Eliminate Daylight Saving Time.” American Academy of Sleep Medicine – Association for Sleep Clinicians and Researchers, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 14 Sept. 2020, https://aasm.org/american-
Commisso, Danielle. “This Year, Even More Americans Oppose Turning Back the Clocks.” CivicScience, 31 Oct. 2022, https://civicscience.com/this-
Huberman, Andrew, director. YouTube/Maximizing Productivity, Physical & Mental Health with Daily Tools | Huberman Lab Podcast #28, Huberman Labs, 12 July 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Petrowski, Katja, et al. “The Effects of Light Exposure on the Cortisol Stress Response in Human Males.” Stress, vol. 24, no. 1, 2020, pp. 29–35., https://doi.org/10.1080/
Phan, Thieu X., et al. “Intrinsic Photosensitivity Enhances Motility of T Lymphocytes.” Scientific Reports, vol. 6, no. 1, 20 Dec. 2016, https://doi.org/10.1038/