Ask The Dr.: Seven Benefits of Vitamin Sea

The ocean heals, both physically and mentally. Soak up its abundant gifts.
Vitamin D supports healthy bones, teeth, immune function and more. Photo: Ryan Klaus

By Dr. Frank Lipman

There’s no shortage of reasons to love the ocean and the time spent in and around it. After all, we did emerge from it millions of years ago so, in a way, the ocean is literally a part of us. Not surprisingly, it retains the power to calm and rejuvenate. In fact, time spent by the sea (or even by other large bodies of water) confers a raft of physical and mental health benefits. Think of it as the therapeutic treatment you should take advantage of now while the days are still long—and then continue into the fall and winter when our light-starved bodies and psyches may need its healing energy even more. Here’s how to harness the power of the ocean and (metaphorically) drink in its benefits:

“TLSea” supports better mental health.
The siren call of a day trip to the beach or a vacation by the sea in summertime is almost primal. In winter, when temps drop and daylight is short, the pull is felt perhaps even more acutely—when all one can think about is escaping to a sunny tropical isle. It’s as if your body and brain are telling you explicitly that they need some “TLSea”—and they are. Research shows that folks who live in close proximity to coastal waters report substantially better health, both mental and physical, than their land-locked counterparts. Even just a visit to, or a view of, a “blue space,” any body of water, can have a positive impact on mental health, particularly on depression—so indulge in this natural treatment courtesy of Mother Earth. And, as an estimated half of all Americans live within 50 miles of the coastline, and many more live near a blue space, chances are that access to this drug-free mental health elixir is within reach.

Beach time boosts vitamin D levels.
When you head for the blue spaces, aka the sea, the lake, the river, it’s likely good weather, when sunshine is plentiful. Soaking in a few of those warm rays, sensibly and responsibly—no burning allowed—is an excellent way to get a natural dose of vitamin D, which is not only essential for strong bones and teeth, but to support immune function and to help reduce the risk of infection, as well as other major health-destabilizers like autoimmune diseases, heart disease and multiple sclerosis.

Time by the sea upgrades your sleep quality.
If your sleeping skills leave something to be desired, then a dose of blue space may be just what the doctor ordered. A daytime dose of bright sunlight (dancing artfully on the water’s surface) helps reset your body clock by reconnecting it with the natural rhythm of light and dark, entraining our bodies to release the wakefulness and sleep hormones, cortisol and melatonin, as well as neurotransmitters (brain chemical messengers), at the right time, which, in turn, helps make falling asleep much easier. A daily dose of bright sunlight will really keep your sleep/wake cycle humming, and time by the water is a great, relaxing way to restart that process.

Sea breezes are an antidote for respiratory problems.
Struggling with asthma symptoms or respiratory ills? Allergies a frequent irritation or worse? Breezes from the sea can help here too. Sea air, in addition to smelling fresh and invigorating, carries along with it magnesium, iodine and salt, which can help tame symptoms and help you breathe a little easier. For allergy sufferers, ocean breezes can help blow away irritants like pollen and spores, while the sea air’s negative ions can also make breathing easier by improving our ability to absorb oxygen.

Watery places give your brain a vacation.
According to the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, blue spaces, like nature’s on-land green spaces, also have a positive effect on well-being, reducing feelings of stress, de-stimulating the brain and increasing feelings of calm—which is great for so many systems in your body, especially the cardiovascular system and the brain. Why do we feel calmer when we’re near the sea? The thinking is that in a watery or beachy environment, our brains get a chance to replenish themselves, getting a much-needed respite from the intense focus of everyday life tasks. The brain switches over to a state of “soft attention,” where the mind can relax and wander freely. All that staring out to the blue horizon changes our brain wave activity, slowing them down and putting the brain in a light, meditative, more blissed-out state. What else do those sea air ions do? By some estimates, they help boost electrical functionality of the brain by roughly 47 percent—which is all to the brain-health good!

The view—and all that blue—connects with your senses.
Time by the water engages all the senses—sight, smell, touch, sound and the pleasant tastes of salt in the air you get when being near it and breathing it in. According to a study published in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s journal Science, the color blue is associated with feelings of calm and increased creativity—and when you’re staring out at an ocean of it, the feeling is magnified. Then there is the soothing, hypnotic sound of the waves lapping the shore or the gentle rush of water running down a river or waterfall, which helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which further enhances feelings of calm, as does the feel of water on your skin and warm sand between your toes. The sea does everything in its power to make staying tense close to impossible—and whether you’re beachside for a week or just a day, the effects are powerful and wonderful from head to toe.

Breathing in salt air can aid with pesky allergies and asthma. Photo: Alexander Mils 

Enjoy movement and connection at the water’s edge.
Being by the sea is an invitation to two massively important good habits: movement and social connection. When it comes to movement, the opportunities to do it are plenty, and they come naturally. Walking along the shoreline barefoot and physically connecting with the natural world (aka grounding); playing with your kids in the sand; swimming in the surf; working on your beach volleyball moves—it all counts as movement, which is another boost for well-being and better sleep at night. By grounding (or earthing) with walks in the sand, you may also find yourself feeling less pain and more energy, thanks to the physical connection of your feet to the Earth’s surface electrons—so take advantage! And in addition to making the physical connection with the world, you’ll also make more memories by connecting with your tribe as you spend a lot more time playing, chatting and interacting, and a lot less time staring at electronic devices, straining your neck and tiring your eyes—and that’s worth a trip from anywhere!

Get your dose—anytime—even in winter.
Time by the sea or in a blue space brings with it so many good things for body and soul, it’s a shame to think it can only be enjoyed in summertime. Every season by the sea has its charms, with fall and winter being a spectacular time to enjoy the benefits with few crowds. Bundle up and enjoy the winter light, the sound of seagulls, the crashing waves and the wind. Stroll along the water’s edge or take some time to just sit and be still, stare at the sea, meditate and take a few moments to feel gratitude for the beauty of the sea and the natural world.