Sunlight and Circadian Rhythms - the Number One Determinant of our Health and Longevity

In this blog post, I present the evidence to show why exposure to sunlight, in combination with a well-entrained circadian rhythm, is the number one determining factor to our health and longevity.

Firstly, I explain the mechanisms behind the photoelectric effect of sunlight. This is the ability of sunlight to penetrate the skin and induce a negative electric charge within the water in our cells and mitochondrial membranes.

I explain what mitochondria are and what they do, and how a negative electric charge in our cells and mitochondrial membranes serves to limit the cumulative damage that is caused by mitochondrial DNA mutations generated by replication errors.

I explain why I believe the ability of mitochondria to regulate the immune system cured a rare disease I used to be afflicted with called cholinergic urticaria.

Furthermore, I explain melatonin’s role in optimizing mitochondrial function, and I explain how a well entrained circadian rhythm through exposure to sunlight during the day and the restriction of artificial light at night ensures sufficient melatonin production.

There are other benefits that sunlight brings that are outside the scope of this blog post, such as providing the body with a means to create the sulfated form of vitamin D, which cannot be obtained from a vitamin D supplement, or the ability of sunlight to improve the cardiovascular system via the production of nitric oxide. I hope to expand on these at a later date.

The Photoelectric Effect of Sunlight

In 1905, Albert Einstein published a paper that proposed that light acts not as a wave, but as a collection of particles, which we now call photons. This particle behavior can be observed by the photoelectric effect - the ability of light to displace electrons from a material.

Gerald Pollack discovered that the photoelectric effect occurs when light is absorbed by water in our cells. The chemical structure of the water changes from H2O to H3O2, and this body of water builds next to hydrophillic (water loving) surfaces, such as those found on cell walls and mitochondrial membranes. Because of this change in chemical structure, the water now has a negative charge that can be utilized, similar to how a battery can store and deliver energy. Gerald Pollack coined the term “exclusion zone” or EZ for short, to describe the area of negatively charged water within our cells.

Those (mitochondrial) membranes are hydrophillic surfaces, and as I mentioned, next to hydrophillic surfaces, EZs build, so this is a perfect configuration for buiding EZs and negative charge.

This negative charge causes the mitochondrial membrane potential to increase, which improves mitochondrial function. This is explained further in the section on mitochondria.

The following diagram from one of Pollack’s experiments shows two EZs - the control at the top and the increase in EZ after several minutes of light exposure on the bottom.
Gerald Pollack - The Fourth Phase Of Water. Top: control. Bottom: After several minutes of light exposure.

So, the arithmetic shows not only that our body bears net negative charge, but also that the body makes every effort to maintain that negativity by ridding itself of protons. It is as though maintaining negativity is a “goal” of life. Plants do it easily: they connect directly to the negatively charged earth; animals need to struggle a bit more to maintain their body’s charge in exchange for greater mobility.

Pollack also discovered how the different wavelengths present in sunlight affects the EZ. He discovered that the infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths of light found in sunlight are the most effective at increasing the size of the exclusion zone. As these wavelengths of light are rarely present in artificial lighting, it is important to ensure that we maximize our exposure to the sun in order to receive both infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths.

Mitochondria and Their Utilization of Negative Charge

Mitochondria are organelles that exist in large numbers within our cells. Mitochondria have their own DNA, independent of the nuclear genome within their parent cell. Their main function is to convert electrons obtained from food into ATP, the energy currency of our cells. This conversion process is called oxidative phosphorylation, and it has an oxidative effect which can damage the mitochondria DNA. Mitochondria also signals apoptosis (cell death) to its parent cell, such that when it detects mitochondrial DNA damage within itself, it asks its parent cell to commit suicide. If this signaling process fails, then faulty mitochondria can replicate and lead to cancer, other diseases and aging.

Mitochondria can also directly capture electrons directly from sunlight through light absorbed by chlorophyll pigments. These captured electrons increase the mitochondrial membrane potential, i.e. the amount of negative charge stored within the mitochondrial membrane.

The Mitochondrial Membrane Potential

This negative charge in the EZ water is used in multiple functions in the body, such as to drive blood through capillaries and to increase the mitochondrial membrane potential, which optimizes mitochondrial function, such as to ensure efficient ATP production, or to ensure proper signaling to the parent cells and immune system. The lower the negative charge, the higher the possibility that the apoptosis signal from the mitochondria will be ignored by the cell. If the apoptosis signal is ignored, damaged cells and their mitochondria will replicate.

Jack Kruse calls the amount of negative charge stored within our cells the redox potential.

The redox levels in mitochondrion are like a scale of justice. When protons are more prominent, the redox potential is poor. When we have more electrons in the system, the redox potential is excellent. The more electrons we have, the more potential and kinetic energy is stored in our proteins and water hydration shell to allow us to deal with the stressors of the environment. The human species is designed to collect electrons in excess. Think of the redox potential as a giant sink of electrons and protons. We need more negatively charged electrons to run our mitochondria and proteins well. This is our redox sink or bank account.

The more negative charge we can obtain then, the better. More sunlight means more negative charge, which leads to better mitochondrial health and signaling.

The Mitochondria’s Role In Regulating the Immune System

Recent research has shown that mitochondria are critical to activation of the immune system response, as well as having an important role in mast cell activation.

On a personal note, I suffered from cholinergic urticaria for a number of years. Cholinergic urticaria is a disease of the immune system, and more specifically, it is caused by the inability to activate mast cells in the skin prior to sweat release.

The symptoms of cholinergic urticaria were painful - it felt as if my body was on fire. It was triggered suddenly by any change to stress levels, heat or exercise. The cure for my condition came in the form of increased sun exposure and UVB phototherapy at a hospital multiple times per week.

The effect of sunlight on optimizing mitochondrial function, and the subsequent role of the mitochondria in immune system regulation of mast cells is the reason why I believe that UVB phototherapy and sun exposure cured my condition.

The Mitochondrial Theory of Aging

Rodney Shackelford explains the mitochondrial theory of aging well; “Aging is due to the cumulative effects of damage wrought by free radicals on the mitochondrial DNA and function”. He also explains why caloric restriction works to increase lifespan by reducing mitochondrial free radical production and mitochondrial DNA oxidative damage, as the mitochondria are taxed less due to a lower intake of food.

If the creation of free-radicals are responsible for causing damage to our mitochondria, then can we not simply take in more antioxidants in supplement form to counteract the oxidative effect of free-radicals? Nick Lane, author of numerous books on mitochondria, investigated this. His findings were that the free-radicals created by mitochondria are a stress state signal to the cell, and that taking in excess antioxidants actually cause harm by inhibiting this signal, thus interfering with apoptosis.

The mitochondrial apoptosis signal can therefore be inhibited by both a low negative charge but also by excess antioxidants.

They (antioxidants) interfere with signaling. We now know that free radicals signal a stress state in the cell. There are all kinds of subtle distinctions, but if something is going wrong, they are behaving like a smoke detector, or at least they are the smoke, and the cell is set up to detect the smoke and react accordingly. The trouble with antioxidants is they’re in effect disabling the smoke detector, and that’s not a good thing to do. The smoke detector sets off a stress response and that stress response changes the expression of all kinds of genes, which are protective for the cell. So very often more free radicals produces a stress response which is protective, which battens down those hatches and allows a cell to go on living for longer. Messing around with that signal by throwing antioxidants at it really doesn’t help.

Doug Wallace, known for his extensive research on mitochondria over the past 40 years, has linked mitochondria as the root cause for most metabolic and degenerative diseases, cancer and aging. He observed in his research that very small reductions in energy in our mitochondria causes massive implications in the epigenetic expression of our nuclear genes.

“Subtle changes in mitochondrial bioenergetics is causing phase shifts in the epi genome expression of the nuclear genes, and it’s this epi genome expression that we believe creates these phenotypic changes that are related to cancer, metabolic syndrome, to diabetes and so on.

Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that mitochondrial dysfunction is the root cause of cancer. Through the work of Warburg and Seyfried, Travis Christofferson wrote the book, Tripping Over The Truth, The Metabolic Theory of Cancer. This book puts together the evidence that cancer is not a genetic disease but instead is due to mitochondrial dysfunction.

Mitochondria are so important to the fidelity of an organism that a predominant theory is called ‘the mitochondrial theory of aging.’ It contends that the condition of the mitochondria dictate the capacity of the cell to function over time. As mitochondria decline, cellular operations decline with them. As the mitochondria lose the ability to function effectively, the body begins the functional decline known as aging.

Looking after our mitochondria is the most important thing we can do to improve our health, and exposure to sunlight is the key.

Another way to ensure optimal mitochondria function is through having a well-entrained circadian rhythm, which I discuss next.

Circadian Rhythms and Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone regulated by our circadian rhythm, and it is understood by many to be simply a hormone that initiates sleep. It is much more than that however - melatonin ensures optimal mitochondrial function.

Melatonin, the major hormone of the pineal gland, also acts as an antioxidant and as a regulator of mitochondrial bioenergetic function. Both in vitro and in vivo, melatonin was effective for preventing oxidative stress/nitrosative stress-induced mitochondrial dysfunction seen in experimental models of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and Huntington’s disease. In addition, melatonin is known to retard aging and to inhibit the lethal effects of septic shock or I/R lesions by maintaining respiratory complex activities, electron transport chain, and ATP production in mitochondria.

Melatonin regenerates the mitochondria respiratory proteins. Cancer is a state when the respiratory proteins are expanded and mitochondria have high heteroplasmy rates. Endogenous melatonin production from the eye and skin needs the sun’s signal via these surfaces by way of neuropsin photoreceptor to regenerate our tissues using melatonin as a guardian protector of the respiratory chain in every human cell.

Melatonin secretion is correlated to the amount of light exposure during the day and the lack of light exposure at night. Photoreceptors in the eye called retinal ganglion cells detect the spectrum of light wavelengths entering the eye and convey this information to the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. The SCN is the master regulator of the body’s circadian clocks, and it also provides the signal to the pineal gland to secrete melatonin.

The recent discovery of these photosensitive RGCs has challenged the long-standing dogma of retinal physiology that rod and cone photoreceptors are the only retinal cells that respond directly to light and has explained the perplexing finding that mice lacking rod and cone photoreceptors can still reliably entrain their circadian rhythms to light.

This gives further impetus therefore to maximize sunlight exposure not only on our skin but in our eye too, and gives reason to avoid wearing sunglasses outside unless absolutely necessary.

Artificial Light Suppresses Melatonin

Melatonin production is heavily suppressed under exposure to artificial light in the evening, with blue light being the worst offender. The f.lux research page has a fantastic explanation of why this happens and links to many research studies. The most fascinating is one which shows that artificial light even suppresses melatonin in blind people.

The best way to avoid melatonin suppression is simply to avoid all sources of artificial light after sunset, especially blue light. Blue light is contained within household light bulbs, especially LEDs. It’s also prevalent in screens from televisions, smartphones, computers, laptops and tablets.

Image credit: Business Insider - How smartphone light affects your brain and body

Alexander Wunsch explains that blue light, in addition to suppressing melatonin expression, also creates free-radicals, which he calls ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species).

Blue has the highest energy in the visible part of the spectrum and produces, infuses, the production of ROS, of oxidative stress. The blue light causes ROS in your tissue, and this stress needs to be balanced with near-infrared that is not present in LEDs. We need even more regeneration from blue light, but the regenerative part of the spectrum is not found in the blue, in the short wavelength, part. It’s found in the long wavelength part, in the red and the near-infrared. So tissue regeneration and tissue repair results from the wavelengths that are not present in an LED spectrum.

We have increased stress on the short wavelength part and we have reduced regeneration and repair on the long wavelength part. This is the primary problem. We don’t have this kind of light quality in nature. This has consequences. The stress has consequences in the retina; it has consequences in our endocrine system.

Artificial light contains high levels of blue light and low levels of red and infrared light. This not only suppresses melatonin, but it is stressful to our cells.

Practical Tips on Circadian Rhythm Entrainment

Replacing LED bulbs in your house with incandescents will decrease blue light exposure. Image credit: Mercola - How LED Lighting May Compromise Your Health

The avoidance of artificial light does not fit into modern society. There are various means by which to mitigate the damage however. The first is to install blue light blocking software on devices with screens such as f.lux, Twilight or use of Apple’s NightShift mode. The second is to replace LED light bulbs with incandescent bulbs, which contain far less blue light. The third is to wear blue-blocking glasses. I personally use Swanwick glasses after sunset.

A more radical approach would be to do an occasional artificial light fast. The University of Colorado in Boulder recently conducted a study in which a week without artificial light during a camping trip quickly entrained the campers’ circadian rhythms. Bill Lagakos delves into the results of the camping experiments further, and recommends doing an artificial light fast twice a week.

Do an artificial light fast a couple nights per week: a 70% improvement in circadian rhythms is worth it. Or at least get wise about hot blue blockers.

Final Thoughts

This is probably the most important blog post that I will ever write.

Eleven years ago, I became afflicted with a disease called cholinergic urticaria, which thankfully does not affect me any longer. Cholinergic urticaria is caused by the inability to activate mast cells in the skin prior to sweat release. The symptom of this condition was a sudden, severe pain that felt like being burned alive. It was triggered by heat, stress or exercise. The affliction lasted for a few years, and the cure finally came in the form of increased sun exposure and ultraviolet light therapy at a hospital multiple times per week.

I have since been on a journey to understand the reason behind why light was the cure. Doctors and dermatologists had no clue, and all initial research I did was unfruitful. I knew the cure was not vitamin D, as I had tried supplementing in various dosages without success.

I now believe that the effect of sunlight on optimizing mitochondrial function, and the subsequent role of the mitochondria in immune system regulation of mast cells, is the reason that sun exposure cured my affliction with cholinergic urticaria.

It was through the work of Jack Kruse, Gerald Pollack, Doug Wallace, Nick Lane, Bill Lagakos, Travis Christofferson and many others that I finally began to understand the effects of sunlight on our mitochondria, the vital role that mitochondria have on our health, and how our circadian rhythms ensure optimal mitochondrial function. I came to understand that sunlight is a universal need and not just for myself and my genetic makeup.

This blog post is a culmination of my research. It provides the evidence for my beliefs in how light cured my affliction with cholinergic urticaria, and why I now believe that sunlight, in combination with a well-entrained circadian rhythm, is the number one determinant of our health and longevity.

I welcome all comments and critique, especially from those with a scientific background who can refute or refine my understandings.