There is a lot of anti-sun propaganda out there these days. But are these fears truly warranted? What if we are missing a big huge piece of the puzzle and being overly cautious?
Today we are going to talk about why unprotected sun exposure can be more beneficial to us than avoiding the sun or lathering up with sunscreen.
First of all, let’s take a moment to really think about whether or not it makes sense, from an evolutionary perspective, that the sun can be so dangerous. One glaring fact that we can’t ignore, is that humans have lived in the sun since we first walked the earth. We never had clothes or sunscreen or shelter to ‘protect’ us, and yet we were much healthier and never got skin cancer. How is it possible that all of a sudden being outside can be so damaging to our health?
And of course I realize that the ozone layer is depleting, and that does account for a slight increase in the amount of UV rays reaching the earth, but not enough to justify all the panic and warnings of the danger of sun.
The fact is that the sun is our main source of vitamin D. When UVB rays reach us, they trigger the production of vitamin D in our skin. There are other sources of vitamin D such as wild oily fish, pastured pork lard, and other pasture-raised and grass-fed animal foods, but these sources don’t give us nearly as much vitamin D as sun exposure does. Not only that, but most people aren’t consuming enough of these foods, with farmed fish and factory-raised animals dominating most of our food supply.
Vitamin D is so essential for our health, it is one of only two substances that acts on every SINGLE cell in the body (the other being thyroid hormone). This means that every system, organ, tissue and function relies, at least in part, on optimal levels of vitamin D. This is also why a deficiency in vitamin D can present in so many different symptoms and diseases. It literally affects everything.
Ironically, low levels of vitamin D increase our risk for developing cancer and heart disease. And according to one study:
increased sun exposure may lead to improved cancer prognosis and, possibly, give more positive than adverse health effects
So not only will more sun protect us from getting cancer, but it will also help us recover better.
Another study says this:
The adverse effects of insufficient UVR exposure are less clear-cut, but may include a heightened risk of several cancers and autoimmune disorders as well as of bone diseases such as rickets, osteomalacia and osteoporosis
The Happy Hormone
Some other benefits of sun exposure are improved mood and lower depression due to the stimulation of serotonin production. Serotonin is the happy chemical in our brains (depression is often treated with SSRI’s – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors – to keep serotonin in circulation and acting on our brain cells longer). The lack of sun exposure in the winter is the main cause of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and lower mood and energy levels.
Another benefit of regular sun exposure is skin health. We don’t need any fancy research studies to tell us this. Skin health is greatly improved by moderate sun exposure. It helps get rid of acne, imperfections, and even helps dramatically heal eczema and psoriasis (something I can personally attest to).
Part of the improvement in psoriasis symptoms may be associated with UV rays’ beneficial effect on the immune system (partly due to vitamin D production), as this study indicates:
vitamin D deficiency can play a role in the pathogenesis of auto-immune diseases
This is huge. There are over 100 known autoimmune diseases, and over 50 million people affected in the US alone (compared to 12 million with cancer, and 25 million with heart disease).
Why not just get your vitamin D from a supplement? There are a few things to consider. First, not all supplements are made equal. There are two basic forms of vitamin D: vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. D2 is the synthetic form and is not nearly as effective, doesn’t get converted into the active form of vitamin D as well as does D3, and has a much shorter shelf-life. So if you are supplementing, make sure you are getting D3.
The second thing to consider when deciding between supplements or natural sources, is that there are other benefits to sun exposure besides vitamin D (including the mood-boosting effects of serotonin discussed earlier). There is some evidence that another form of vitamin D, vitamin D3 sulfate is also synthesized in the skin during sun exposure. This form of vitamin D is not found in food or supplements and is actually water soluble, making it easy for it to travel through your blood stream and reach your cells.
Smart Sun Exposure
So what do you do if you live in a northern climate and aren’t lucky enough to have beautiful hot sun year round? As controversial as it might sound, tanning beds can be a good option. I go tanning twice a week for 10 minutes – partly for my skin health and partly to get vitamin D. This amount of time doesn’t give me much colour, and I never burn. There are a few important points to remember if you are considering tanning (especially if you’ve never done it before).
- Start slow. Most tanning places are pretty good about making sure you don’t start off with more time than is healthy for you. You might start with just 2 or 3 minutes at a time and gradually build up to slightly longer.
- Remember that the goal is not to get a tan, but to improve your health!
- If you ever find that your skin is pink or even slightly burned after a tanning session, go for less time the next time.
- Be sure to find a tanning salon that uses the right ratio of UVB to UVA rays. This is perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind! A lot of places actually take the UVB out entirely, so you still get a tan from the UVA rays, but you won’t be stimulating vitamin D production or getting any of the skin health benefits from the UVB rays. This is NOT what you want! A ratio of approximately 5% UVB is ideal.
And if you do have access to natural sunlight, keep in mind that the best time for vitamin D benefits is mid-day. Another interesting fact is that elderly and darker skinned people produce less vitamin D from sun exposure so they need more time in the sun.
The key is not to overdue it. There are of course risks with over-tanning, and especially burning. But if you tan wisely, the benefits far outweigh the risks, in my opinion.