Why Sun Exposure Is Vital to Your HealthApril 13th, 2009
Provoked by high rates of skin cancer, many people avoid the sun as much as possible and cover themselves with sunscreen before spending any time outdoors. Sadly, these people are actually increasing their risk for cancer and other diseases.
For millions of years, humans have spent many hours out in the sun each day without the protection of sunscreen. As such, it seems completely backwards for this natural and essential part of life to be considered dangerous. A closer look at the issue reveals that it is indeed backwards and that the fear of sun exposure is the real problem.
The Amazing Influence of Vitamin D
Most people have heard of vitamin D and realize that it’s naturally produced by the body when exposed to sunlight. However, few people fully understand how critical vitamin D is to good health.
Vitamin D is actually not a vitamin. It’s a prehormone that’s converted into a very important steroid hormone called calcitriol. This hormone controls the expression of over 2,000 genes in the human body which is about 10% of our entire genome. Vitamin D is the only source that calcitriol can be produced from, and as such, both play a tremendous role in your health.
Vitamin D deficiency is associated with cancer, autism, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, and other debilitating diseases. Based on the frightening prevalence of these conditions, it should be no surprise that over 80% of the population is estimated to be vitamin D deficient.
Vitamin D also supports the immune system and is an important factor in fighting off sickness. Because it’s produced from sun exposure, deficiency is more likely during the winter months when the sun’s intensity is greatly reduced, and this is a very likely explanation for the much higher incidence of sickness that occurs during this time of year.
Most important of all, vitamin D is of significant importance to cancer prevention because it promotes the destruction and regulation of mutated cancer cells.
The Sad Irony of Skin Cancer and Sunscreen
Since the late 1980s, we’ve been told to avoid direct sun exposure because of the growing prevalence of skin cancer. As a result, many people cover every inch of their skin with sunscreen before going out in the sun, or even worse, go through great lengths to avoid the sun completely.
UVA and UVB are the two types of ultraviolet radiation found in sunlight that are absorbed by our skin. UVB stimulates the production of vitamin D and can cause our skin to tan or burn relatively quickly. In contrast, UVA doesn’t stimulate vitamin D production and takes much longer to promote tanning or burning. However, it penetrates the skin more deeply, and unlike UVB, it can travel through windows and clouds. These characteristics give UVA radiation the potential to be far more dangerous than UVB.
Ironically, nearly all sunscreens block UVB radiation only. As such, they also block production of the vitamin D that assists in preventing cancer, but do absolutely nothing to block the UVA radiation that can cause cancer. Furthermore, most sunscreens contain toxic chemicals that are readily absorbed by the skin and increase the risk of cancer even more!
The Importance of Healthy Skin
Healthy skin is much more resistant to sun damage and cancer. Based on the millions of years that humans have spent in the sun, common sense strongly suggests that resilient skin and good overall health are much more effective at reducing the risk of cancer than simply avoiding sun exposure, even with a depleted ozone layer.
Proper hydration is the most basic element of promoting healthy skin and is just one of the many reasons why it’s important to avoid dehydration. Without a sufficient supply of water, skin cells will lose function and become more susceptible to sun damage.
It’s also important for skin cells to have a strong and healthy membrane so that they can resist damage and retain the water they need. The consumption of high quality fat provides the body with the nutrients it needs to build these strong and healthy membranes, but with the popularity of low fat diets and processed food, most people are either not consuming enough fat to maintain healthy cells, or are eating damaged and denatured fats that promote cell malfunction.
How to Promote Healthy Skin
To promote healthy skin that’s resistant to sun damage and cancer, you should start by consuming a sufficient amount of water each day. A good daily guideline is to drink as many ounces of filtered water as half of your body weight in pounds.
Next, you should make sure that you’re consuming enough high quality fat to provide your body with the materials it needs to build strong cell membranes. It’s important to consume a balanced amount of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids as well as a sufficient amount of saturated fat. Despite what you’ve been hearing for many years, saturated fat is not the cause of heart disease. Good sources of saturated fat include animal products such as meat and dairy, and it’s best to buy these foods from a reputable source. Coconut oil is an excellent source of saturated fat as well. In fact, I’ve noticed a significant improvement in my resistance to sunburn after making coconut oil a regular part of my diet.
Because the typical modern diet is already high in omega-6 fatty acids, there’s no need to intentionally add them. You may even want to moderate your consumption of vegetable oils as they’re one of the most common sources of omega-6 fatty acids. Humans have evolved on an approximately equal ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, and as such, it’s important to consume enough omega-3 fatty acids to balance the higher amount of omega-6 fatty acid that’s typically consumed. Some good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include grass fed beef, walnuts, olive oil, ground flax seed, fish and fish oil.
Finally, because we all have unique nutritional needs, and because some people require more fat than others, it’s also important to consider your Metabolic Type if you decide to increase your fat intake.
Getting Your Fix of Sun and Vitamin D
Considering the fact that sun exposure is both natural and essential for life, avoiding it to the extreme that’s commonly recommended certainly doesn’t make much sense. Anyone who enjoys the company of a cat or a dog is likely to know just how much these animals love the sun. When indoors, they have an innate ability to find even the smallest bit of sunlight coming through a window. Based on the intuitive survival instincts that all animals posses, this should be an obvious indication of the need for sunlight.
To support optimal health through sufficient vitamin D production, it’s important to get at least 15 to 20 minutes of exposure to strong sunlight each day, or as close to it as possible. To benefit from this exposure, it’s important that you do not wear sunscreen and that you have as much skin exposed as possible.
Darker skin requires more sunlight to produce vitamin D, and as such, will likely require more than 15 or 20 minutes of exposure. Likewise, if you have fair skin, 15 minutes might be more than what you can tolerate at first. Ideally, you should aim to be in the sun during it’s highest point as this is when the beneficial UVB radiation is most abundant. As long as you avoid sunburn, getting sun exposure on a regular basis without the use of sunscreen will help to improve your health rather than harm it. Furthermore, your resistance to sunburn will naturally become stronger as you continue to spend more time in the sun.
If you know you’re going to be out in the sun for a longer period of time than what your skin can handle, then it obviously makes sense to protect yourself. The best way is to wear clothing that will block the sun while also allowing you to stay cool. If you must use sunscreen, choose a natural one that’s free of toxic chemicals and blocks both UVA and UVB radiation. The best sunscreen I know of that meets these requirements is made by Aubrey Organics. Although their sunscreen is more difficult to rub in than conventional sunscreens, the protection from UVA radiation and the avoidance of toxic chemicals is well worth the effort.
What About Winter?
Because the body is capable of storing vitamin D, sufficient sun exposure during the summer produces enough of it to last through the winter. After all, this was perfectly adequate for our ancestors as vitamin D supplements were obviously not available to them. However, few of us get the amount of sun exposure that our ancestors did.
If you’re unable to get sufficient sun exposure during the summer, or if you’ve tested low for vitamin D, then it’s probably a good idea to take a vitamin D3 supplement. In either of these cases, Dr. John Cannell, president of the Vitamin D Council, recommends 5,000 IU per day. Although this is more than 10 times the daily amount recommended by the FDA, it’s important to realize that 5,000 IU is only 125 micrograms, which is 0.125 milligrams, and is just a quarter of the vitamin D that can be naturally produced by the body in a single day of adequate sun exposure. Other vitamin D experts, such as Dr. Robert Heaney, recommend taking 1,000 IU to 2,000 IU.
What About the Depleted Ozone Layer?
Although the depletion of the ozone layer is certainly a valid concern, I don’t think it means that we should avoid the sun and always load up on sunscreen. The importance of vitamin D has been clearly established, and in my opinion, outweighs the potential risk of increased radiation from the depleted ozone layer. Furthermore, it’s in our best interest to get vitamin D from it’s natural source rather than a pill because there may be additional benefits to sunlight that we haven’t yet discovered and are vital to our health. As such, it’s always best to error on the side of nature, even if it’s been compromised by our own doing.
The depletion of the ozone layer simply means that the radiation from the sun is stronger and that we just have to be mindful of the increased potential for sunburn.
For more information about the research supporting the importance of vitamin D and sun exposure, visit the Vitamin D Council run by Dr. John Cannell and the Sunlight, Nutrition and Health Research Center run by Dr. William Grant.