With all off the negative attention the sun gets due to its role in skin cancer, it can be easy for us to forget just how important sunlight is for maintaining overall health. A recent study conducted by researchers from the Telethon Kids Institute in Perth, Western Australia, and Universities of Edinburgh and Southampton has revealed that moderate exposure to sunlight can help slow the development of obesity and diabetes.

"Our findings are important as they suggest that casual skin exposure to sunlight, together with plenty of exercise and a healthy diet, may help prevent the development of obesity in children." Dr. Shelley Gorman, of the Telethon Kids Institute and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Gorman and her colleagues studied what effect sunlight, simulated by shining a UV light, had on mice that were overfed. These mice showed a decline in diabetes risk factors, including abnormal glucose levels and insulin resistance. The research team attributed the beneficial effects of the UV treatment for mice at risk for diabetes to nitric oxide.

Nitric oxide is a compound that is naturally released by the skin following exposure to sunlight. When researchers applied a cream containing nitric oxide to the skin of mice at risk for diabetes they noticed the same positive effects that resulted from direct UV light exposure. Similar studies have found that nitric oxide can also help lower blood pressure. Surprisingly, researchers said that vitamin D had no effect on the results of their study.

"These observations further indicate that the amounts of nitric oxide released from the skin may have beneficial effects not only on heart and blood vessels but also on the way our body regulates metabolism," added Dr. Martin Feelisch, professor of experimental medicine and integrative biology at the University of Southampton.

Nitric oxide, hailed as the “miracle molecule,” is a signaling molecule responsible for expanding of blood vessels as well as the body’s first line of defense against heart disease. People who are nitric oxide deficient run the risk of shrinking arteries that make them more susceptible to high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, and heart disease.

"We know from epidemiology studies that sun-seekers live longer than those who spend their lives in the shade,” said Dr. Richard Weller, senior lecturer in dermatology at the University of Edinburgh. “Studies such as this one are helping us to understand how the sun can be good for us. We need to remember that skin cancer is not the only disease that can kill us and should perhaps balance our advice on sun exposure."

Source: Geldenhuys S, Hart P, Gorman S, et al. Ultraviolet Radiation Suppresses Obesity and Symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome Independently of Vitamin D in Mice Fed a High-Fat Diet. Diabetes. 2014.