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Sleep Tips

Sleep Myths Debunked: Sun Exposure and Sleep

sun and sleep

It's one of the biggest pieces of advice out there: if you have trouble sleeping,  try more sunlight. And it's not just “advice," there's biology, and  science at work here too. Our bodies are chemically attuned to follow the rise and fall of the sun, and there are a lot of benefits of sun exposure — especially first thing in the morning.

So, why is the morning sun good exactly? When the sun goes down, melatonin levels in our brains rise, which signals it is time for us to sleep, and when the sun rises, our hormone levels also rise and tell our bodies it is time to get the day started.  Sun therapy has even been used to help improve mood and sleep disorders.

In short, the benefits of sunlight can help us get our best sleep ever. But, what happens to our bodies when we get  too much sun? And more importantly, what happens to our precious sleep?

Sleep and Sunlight

Why do we experience fatigue after sun exposure?

Being sleepy after a full day of sun exposure doesn't mean you've gotten too much Vitamin D or Melatonin. Rather, you feel tired after a beach day because your body is trying to combat the  effects of prolonged exposure, namely: temperature regulation, dehydration and chemical changes in your blood related to sunburn.

To keep from feeling exhausted after a beach day, recommends precautions beyond sunscreen to keep your skin out of direct sunlight, such as wearing protective clothing or sitting underneath an umbrella.

However, above all, it's important to avoid falling asleep in the sun. While the benefits of napping are the same whether you sleep in the sun or indoors, there is  an increased risk for sunburn and skin damage if you snooze in the sun, so it's best to avoid it altogether or find a nap spot out of direct sunlight.

What happens to my body when I get sunburn?

Sunburn occurs when UV rays manage to penetrate the top layer of skin and damage skin cells. To compensate and heal, our bodies send extra blood cells to those damaged spots  which is why sunburned skin turns red.

A sunburn may just look like red skin, but chemically, there is a lot going on underneath the surface. Your ability to tan or burn is genetically determined by how much melanin your skin produces when exposed to the sun. This is why people with fair skin (less melanin) burn more easily than those with darker skin tones.

So, once burned, the only way for skin to heal is for it to grow anew — which explains why sunburns cause skin to peel. Your skin is literally regenerating itself.

How do sunburns impact sleep?

When it comes to sunburn and sleep, you'll find it's not the sunburn itself, but rather the symptoms of sunburn that can keep you from sleeping. Below are the three biggest ways bad sunburn can affect your sleep:

  • In addition to increased chances for skin cancer, sunburn can produce fever, chills, itching, and a burning sensation that makes it uncomfortable to fall asleep and stay in a REM cycle.
  • Sunburn can also lead to dehydration, so it's important to drink plenty of water. Lots of water, however, can also keep you up at night.
  • Finally, if it hurts to lay on your back, or hurts to feel the sheets touching your burned skin, the discomfort will make it difficult to fall — and stay — asleep.

And, while a few nights of low-quality sleep while you wait for your sunburn to heal may not seem like a big deal, keep in mind that every night of low quality sleep  widens the gap of your sleep debt.

What can I do to enjoy the great outdoors and still sleep great at night?

Just as too little natural sunlight can inhibit melatonin production and mess with your sleep, too much sun can cause sunburn and lead to bad sleep, too. With this in mind, the best way to protect your sleep from sunburn is to practice careful and thorough sunburn prevention in the hours leading up to sleep.

There are over the counter remedies for sunburn: cold compresses, pain relievers and aloe vera, to name a few. However, the best way to minimize the symptoms of sunburn is to not get any in the first place. Reapplying sunscreen continually throughout your time outdoors and sitting away from direct sunlight during the hottest hours of the day can go a long way toward keeping your skin, and sleep, healthy.

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