Tranquil Sunrise by Warren Sheppard (1858–1937)
Tranquil Sunrise by Warren Sheppard (1858–1937)

The importance of getting morning sunlight: insights from ancient cultures

From the dawn of human history, the sun has been a central symbol and source of life. Many ancient civilisations worshiped sun gods and recognised the importance of sunlight for health and wellbeing.

Today, modern science confirms what our ancestors knew intuitively: getting sunlight in the morning can have numerous benefits for our physical, mental, and emotional health.

Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, advocates the importance of getting sunlight in the morning, preferably as soon as we wake up.

Exposing our eyes to natural light in the morning has a range of positive effects on both our mental and physical health. First of all, it triggers the timed release of cortisol into our systems, which acts as a wake-up signal and promotes wakefulness and the ability to focus throughout the day. It also starts a timer for the onset of melatonin, which naturally promotes drowsiness in the evening and helps initiate and maintain sleep.

It is now widely understood that these phenomena resulting from morning sunlight exposure are deeply grounded in the core of our physiology and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of peer reviewed papers to prove it.

While ancient civilisations may not have understood the science behind the benefits of sunlight exposure, they recognised its importance and incorporated it into their daily lives and practices in various ways.

Belvedere Apollo - Pio Clementino Museum
Belvedere Apollo – Pio Clementino Museum

In Greek mythology, Apollo is the god of sunlight, arts, knowledge, and healing. As the god of light, Apollo was responsible for bringing light to the world and driving the chariot of the sun across the sky each day.

Apollo’s association with the sun is also influenced by his connection to other aspects of Greek mythology, such as the concept of divine order and harmony. The sun was seen as a symbol of order and stability and, as I mentioned before, it is key in triggering the timed release of cortisol into our system.

Cortisol plays a key role in helping our body stay balanced and harmonious. It helps regulate our inflammatory response, which is essential for fighting off infections and healing injuries. In addition, cortisol helps maintain blood sugar levels and regulates metabolism, which is important for maintaining energy levels and managing weight.

Cortisol levels are typically highest in the morning, which helps us wake up and feel alert. As the day progresses, cortisol levels gradually decrease, which helps us wind down and feel ready for sleep at night.

Although the Ancient Greeks were not familiar with Cortisol, Aristotle, for example, wrote extensively about sleep and wakefulness and observed that humans and animals have natural cycles of activity and rest.

The Greek physician Galen also recognised the importance of regular sleep patterns for maintaining health and recommended that people follow consistent sleep schedules. In addition, the Greeks had a tradition of practising medicine and healing that was closely tied to the cycles of the seasons and the natural world.

Hippocrates, often considered the father of modern medicine, emphasised the importance of diet, exercise, and rest in maintaining good health. He also believed that illness was caused by an imbalance in the body’s natural rhythms and that restoring these rhythms was essential for healing.

On the island of Cos, in the Greek Archipelago, where Hippocrates practised medicine, the citizens erected a health temple and dedicated it to Aesculapius, son of Apollo, and also a god of sun, medicine and music.

The sun god Ra seated on a throne, from a painting on the wall of the Tomb of Roy circa 1300 BC
The sun god Ra seated on a throne, from a painting on the wall of the Tomb of Roy circa 1300 BC

Similarly, Ra, who was one of the most important gods in ancient Egypt, was linked with the sun and life-giving energy. The sun was the most important source of light and warmth in the ancient world, and it was considered a symbol of life and vitality.

For this reason, the Egyptians built many temples dedicated to the worship of Ra, known as sun temples. Everyday, ancient priests would open temple doors at sunrise to allow the sun’s rays to enter and fill the inner sanctum of the temple. The priests would then perform a series of offerings and prayers to the sun god Ra.

Just as the Egyptians recognised the sun as a healing agent to treat various illnesses and conditions, the Romans used sun baths in chronic affections. Pliny the Elder is credited with the phrase Sol est remediorum maximum, which means the “sun is the greatest remedy”, and the Romans also built sun parlours without windows which leads me to the next point.

Looking at sunlight through a window is 50 times less effective than if the window were to be open. Windows filter out a lot of the wavelengths of blue light that are essential for stimulating our eyes and the wake-up signal.

According to Huberman, you should get around 10 minutes of sunlight every morning, and around 30 minutes on days that are particularly grey or cloudy. Although windows are not effective, eyeglasses (not sunglasses) and contact lenses are fine when getting your morning sunlight.

In ancient societies, specific rituals and routines associated with different times of day, such as prayer, meditation and ceremonies, may have helped to reinforce the body’s internal clock or circadian rhythm, leading to a more natural and harmonious alignment with the natural rhythms of the world around them.

By aligning our activities with the natural rhythms of the world around us, we can promote a greater sense of harmony and well-being in our lives and, with Portugal’s sunny climate and natural beauty, there is no reason not to do so.

By Jay Costa Owen

|| [email protected]
Jay works for a private charter airline, and is also a UX designer and aspiring author who enjoys learning about history and other cultures