Published on May 5, 2024

Wavelengths of Energy from Sunshine: UVB, UVA, Red, Near Infrared, Far Infrared, and Blue Light from sunshine all have unique health consequences

Key Points

  • There are several wavelengths of energy from sunshine that trigger specific actions within the body to influence our health; different wavelengths are able to penetrate the skin to different depths and have certain effects on the cells and tissues they reach
  • UVB radiation stimulates the production of vitamin D, as well as serotonin and beta-endorphins, UVA promotes the release of nitric oxide into the blood, and both have a positive effect on the diversity of the microbiome on the skin and in the gut
  • Blue light has a strong regulatory effect on the circadian rhythm and the release of melatonin from the pineal gland, while red light, near-infrared radiation, and far-infrared radiation have anti-inflammatory and tissue healing effects; infrared radiation also stimulates the production of melatonin inside the mitochondria for a strong antioxidant effect

Watch a Short Video Based on this Blog

The energy given off from the sunshine (aka the solar spectrum) consists of different wavelengths between 300 nm and well over 1 mm. While not all of this radiation is able to penetrate the earth’s atmosphere to reach the earth’s surface, those that do have a wavelength between 100 nm and 1mm, and include ultraviolet radiation (100-400 nm), visible light (400-700 nm), and infrared light (700 nm to over 1 mm).

Just as some of this spectrum is able to make it through the atmosphere, different wavelengths are also able to penetrate the skin to different depths of the body’s tissues to have certain effects on the cells within those tissues.  This energy from the sun can trigger multiple actions within the body that influence our health, several of which are described in the following video snippets with Dr. Michael Holick, illustrated in the updated graphic, and described in detail below.


What Happens in the Body when it is Exposed to Sunlight?

As shown in this illustration, those at the lower wavelengths (such as UVB) only penetrate the very surface of the skin, while those at higher wavelengths (such as visible light) are able to penetrate deeper. Think of how you are able to see the light from a flashlight on the back of your hand when held against the skin on the palm of the hand – you can visually see the energy traveling through the skin, muscles, blood vessels and tissues of the hand. Infrared radiation can even get into the cells and mitochondria, and can get through clothing and bone!

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How Each Wavelength from Sunlight Affects Our Health

Ultraviolet-B Radiation (UVB) – Vitamin D, Serotonin, and Beta-endorphins

UVB (295-319 mn) is at the bottom end of the sunlight spectrum is able to reach the surface of the earth, and therefore our skin, only at specific times and locations. UVB light leads to vitamin D synthesis and can be used as a main source of vitamin D when it is available in plentiful amounts. While UVB is not able to penetrate beyond the very surface of the skin, the vitamin D that is made in the skin circulates throughout the body and tissues, bringing with it a wide range of health benefits.

The vitamin D produced in the skin can also help protect the skin cells from DNA damage, facilitate DNA repair directly upon any UV damage, help prevent cell death, and protect against melanoma. In fact, keratinocytes, which make up over 90% of the outermost layer of skin, cannot rely on vitamin D3 from supplements and must synthesize their own supply of vitamin D directly from sun exposure, or by topical application.

Besides vitamin D, UVB radiation also promotes the production of serotonin and beta-endorphins, chemicals that help with mood enhancement and relaxation, relieve pain, and boost immunity. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved not only in mood, but also in cognition, regulation of feeding behavior, anxiety, aggression, pain, sexual activity, and sleep. Recent research has identified an “endogenous opioid-mediated addiction-like pathway,” or a built-in feedback loop between vitamin D levels and sun seeking behavior, triggered by the UV-induced release of beta-endorphins. The suggested benefit is to provide a “reward” for UV-induced vitamin D synthesis when vitamin D levels are low, during which time a greater amount of beta-endorphins are released upon exposure to UVB. As vitamin D levels rise, the sun-seeking behavior and resulting opioid response become repressed as less vitamin D is needed.

“Avoiding the sun and using dietary sources and/or vitamin D supplements to meet vitamin D requirements may seem an attractive solution. However, exposure to UV radiation may have benefits independently of vitamin D, particularly for the immune system.” Dr. Rachel Neale

Ultraviolet-A Radiation (UVA) – Nitric Oxide

UVA (320-399 nm) exists at a wavelength between UVB and visible light, and is able to reach the deeper levels of the skin but not much further. UVA leads to the release of nitric oxide into the bloodstream which in turn benefits the cardiovascular and metabolic systems, and may offer other immunological benefits beyond those offered by nitric oxide.

Nitric oxide is beneficial for heart health by acting to increase blood flow and lower blood pressure. Additionally, nitric oxide plays a key role in immunity, cellular function, neurotransmission, and it has antimicrobial and anticancer effects.

“…liver function, obesity, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome may all be modulated via sunlight exposure independently of vitamin D synthesis.” Hazell et al. (2023)

Ultraviolet Radiation (UVA and UVB) – Balancing the Microbiome of the Skin & Gut

Your gastrointestinal tract and the surface of the skin are home to trillions of microbes (bacteria, viruses, and yeast), called your “microbiome,” which act as their own organ and are crucial to your overall health. Skin health in particular is maintained by a balanced, diverse microbiome, which is in turn affected by nutrition, pH level, hygiene, exposure to toxins, barrier strength, stress levels, sunlight exposure, and overall health. Interestingly, the microbiome of both the skin and the gut contributes to skin health.

UV exposure (and vitamin D itself) can have a healthy, regulatory effect on the microbiome of the skin and the gut, with UVB light having a beneficial impact on the diversity and abundance of the bacteria species of the gut microbiome, and UVB as well as UVA benefitting the skin microbiome. Studies have even shown that several molecules that help protect our skin from UV damage can be produced by the microbiome on our skin upon UV exposure, acting as a sort of natural sunscreen.  A new study by Harel et al. (2023) examined the skin microbiome of lifeguards who were regularly exposed to longer periods of summer sun.  They found that, after the summer season, there was an increased abundance of UV-resistant bacteria, which helped to protect the skin cells from damage through their production of anti-oxidative molecules.

While there are several negative effects of chronic, prolonged UV radiation (the kind that that leads to acute sunburn), the positive effects of UV radiation range from maintaining the diversity of the microbiome, to the stimulation of both anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive pathways that play a helpful role in many diseases, of the skin as well as systemic diseases.

Blue Light – Regulation of Circadian Rhythm, and Melatonin

Blue light (460 nm) is another form of energy from sunlight that has potential health benefits. Studies have shown that blue light has the strongest effect on the suppression of melatonin secretion from the pineal gland upon exposure to the eyes, which likely contributes to the regulation of the circadian rhythm (also known as your internal clock). Daytime sunlight exposure helps guide your circadian rhythm by increasing melatonin levels at night which promotes sleep and allows your body enough time to rejuvenate. A healthy, regular circadian rhythm also promotes healthy mood and improved cognition. Disruptions to circadian rhythm have been shown to increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, and metabolic conditions.

Research has found that, compared to white light therapy, blue light is more effective for resetting circadian rhythms, suppressing nighttime melatonin, and enhancing performance. Blue light may also play a role in the improvement of mood and depression, both seasonal and non-seasonal. Other physiological actions of blue light suggested by studies include an increase in circulating beta endorphins, decreased systolic blood pressure due to nitric oxide mechanisms in the skin, an anti-bacterial effect, and a potential biomodulating effect within the cells.

Beneficial Effects of Red Light and Near-Infrared Radiation

Photobiomodulation is a term used to describe the physiological effects from irradiation by red or near-infrared wavelengths. Red and near-infrared wavelengths have the ability to penetrate inside of our body’s tissues and cells, and can even penetrate through thin clothing. Studies have shown such benefits include improved tissue function, wound healing, anti-inflammatory effects, and improved energy metabolism from red and near-infrared wavelengths. Hazell et al. (2023) found that “low levels of infra-red radiation within sunlight play a role in mitigating UV damage through DNA damage repair during the morning and evening when UV levels are low but infra-red and visible light remain high.”  Red light specifically (650-950 nm) may even have a positive association with improved vitamin D and magnesium levels in the blood.

Near infrared (over 950 nm) may penetrate as deep as 8 cm and can penetrate bone, enter the cerebrospinal fluid and the brain. The majority of energy from the sunshine is from infrared radiation; we cannot see it, but it is perceived as warmth as it stimulates the heat receptors in skin.

Conditions that may benefit from photobiomodulation include allergies, hypothyroidism, depression, dementia, cancer, diabetes related symptoms, exercise performance and recovery, pain, and cardiovascular diseases. One of the proposed mechanisms is with the involvement of the mitochondria, since changes in ATP levels have been an observed outcome of red and near-infrared radiation.

Near-Infrared Radiation – Intra-cellular Melatonin Production

New research by Zimmerman, S. and Reiter R. suggests that melatonin (a master antioxidant) exists in two main forms within the body – circulatory melatonin, which is suppressed during the day upon exposure to blue light and has its major effect on sleep and the circadian rhythm, and subcellular melatonin, which is produced and used locally by the mitochondria within our cells. Near-infrared radiation stimulates melatonin production in the mitochondria, which helps protect the skin cells from UV damage, increases collagen production, improves energy metabolism and tissue function, and has wound healing and anti-inflammatory effects.

Far-Infrared Radiation Effects

Far infrared radiation (FIR) is at the far end of the solar spectrum of energy that reaches the earth’s surface, opposite of UVB, with the longest wavelength. Studies suggest that the cardiovascular system especially may benefit from FIR. Reported effects of FIR include blood pressure regulation, improved depressive symptoms, endothelial function, microcirculation, the formation of new blood vessels, wound healing, and increased flow-mediated dilation of the blood vessels, although some of these effects may be attributed solely to the thermal effects of FIR.

Make Sure You Are Getting Enough of Both Sunshine & Vitamin D

It is important to incorporate safe, sensible sun exposure into a regular routine, just as it is important to make sure you are getting enough vitamin D.  Because the sun produces many health-benefiting molecules in addition to vitamin D, sunshine exposure cannot be replaced with taking a supplement.

It is also important not to stop supplementing with vitamin D during the summer.  Most people do not make enough vitamin D from sunshine alone, due to their lifestyle and other factors, and therefore must rely on supplementation to maintain optimal vitamin D levels of 40-60 ng/ml (100-150 nmol/L).

This Sunshine Month, get 10% off your home blood spot test kit plus get our Sunshine eBook for free when using the code SunMonth24 at checkout.

Test Your Vitamin D Today!

What happens in your body when it is exposed to sunlight?

Watch this snippet of a video interview with Dr. Michael Holick, as he describes some of the reactions that happen within the body when it is exposed to sunlight.

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Supplements do not replace sunlight

Sunlight has more benefits than those provided by UVB and vitamin D. Learn about the different rays found in sunlight and their unique benefits to your health.

Watch Now

Can the benefits of sunshine exposure be replaced by a pill?

Watch this snippet of a video interview with Dr. Michael Holick, as he describes the multiple benefits of sunshine exposure, and why the health benefits of sunshine cannot be replaced.

Watch Now

Are You Getting Enough Vitamin D from Sunshine?

Having and maintaining healthy vitamin D levels and other nutrient levels can help improve your health now and for your future. Choose which additional nutrients to measure, such as your omega-3s and essential minerals including magnesium and zinc, by creating your custom home test kit today. Take steps to improve the status of each of these measurements to benefit your overall health. With measurement you can then determine how much is needed and steps to achieve your goals.  You can also track your own intakes, symptoms and results to see what works best for YOU.

Enroll in D*action and Test Your Levels Today!

How Can You Use this Information for YOUR Health?

Having and maintaining healthy vitamin D and other nutrient levels can help improve your health now and for your future. Measuring is the only way to make sure you are getting enough!

STEP 1 Order your at-home blood spot test kit to measure vitamin D and other nutrients of concern to you, such as omega-3s, magnesium, essential and toxic elements (zinc, copper, selenium, lead, cadmium, mercury); include hsCRP as a marker of inflammation or HbA1c for blood sugar health

STEP 2 Answer the online questionnaire as part of the GrassrootsHealth study

STEP 3 Using our educational materials and tools (such as our dose calculators), assess your results to determine if you are in your desired target range or if actions should be taken to get there

STEP 4 After 3-6 months of implementing your changes, re-test to see if you have achieved your target level(s)

Enroll in D*action and Build Your Custom Test Kit!