Sun Exposure: Shedding Some Light on the Topic

Aug 9, 2013

Eggs are bad...no they’re good.  Stay away from butter...oops, maybe margarine is the bad guy.  Don’t drink alcohol...or maybe have one glass of red wine a day. You don’t have to go far to find a good argument.  Modern times provide us with an ocean of data...enough to drown ourselves really.  I promise you I don’t want to add to the static and fuzz that so persistently knocks at the door of our cranium. 

But.....

I need you to tune into my station for a sec.  I want to speak a bit about sunshine.  But first a tangent.  We live in the most technically advanced and scientifically knowledgeable time period in history.  Yet there’s also arguably the largest gap ever between this advancement and the general population’s understanding of it. 

This can lead to both overreaction, as well as apathy.  Total belief of the experts, or total ignorance of the facts.  My goal is to help bridge that gap today regarding sunshine and health.

So back to that giant ball of plasmic hydrogen gas hanging in the sky.  She’s gotten a bad rap.  Dermatologists, news anchors, editors of beauty magazines...they’ve all got it out for her.  We’re told to run for cover and slather on the petrochemical “protection”.  Tanning beds are now classified as carcinogens, and the words UV strike fear into every mother as her kids run out in the sun to play.  But is this really what’s best for our health?  Are we really meant to live in the shadows?  Come, let’s reason together...

There are essentially two main reasons we’re told to avoid sun exposure.  One is skin cancer (Basal, Squamous, Melanoma) and the other is accelerating the appearance of aging.  Some recent studies are calling into question the first, while the second is not life threatening.  We’ll talk more about these later. 

For now let’s discuss the positive effects of sun exposure (UV light).  The lion’s share of which are linked to Vitamin D production and synthesis.  OK, get ready for the science.  Remember that statement about our society’s knowledge gap??  Take your fingers out of your ears and pay attention.  I’ll keep it simple without big words.  UV light enters through the skin and is combined with cholesterol to create vitamin D.  The vitamin D passes through the liver and then the kidneys to arrive at it’s active form (which has a big name...calcitriol).  This active “stuff” circulates through the body and is classified as a hormone.  So while it’s easy to think of D as a vitamin, we should really recognize it’s importance as a precursor to a vital regulatory hormone.  This hormone leaves it’s fingerprint on just about darn near everything.  Almost every cell in our body has vitamin D receptors.  Not to mention there are over 2000 genes whose proper expression are influenced by calcitriol. Here's a laundry list of influences:

Boosts serotonin levels, the body’s natural happy hormone...as well as melatonin, the body’s good sleep hormone.  Essential for absorbing calcium, strengthening bones, and preventing osteoporosis.  Lowers cholesterol, high blood pressure and subsequent risk of cardiovascular disease.  Reduces the risk of developing diabetes, multiple sclerosis, endocrine dysfunction, autoimmune disorders, kidney problems, neurological disease, respiratory illness, crohn's disease, and skin problems like psoriasis, acne and eczema.  Testosterone levels are raised in men, and fertility rates in women. Supports liver function, strong teeth and is a vital part of our body’s immune and anti-inflammatory response.  There’s even some evidence suggesting that vitamin D deficiency in pregnant women can lead to chronic disease later in the life of the offspring.  Maybe sunlight isn’t the bad guy after all?

But here’s the kicker.  Especially in light (no pun intended) of the idea that UV rays cause cancer.  Research is now showing that low levels of vitamin D result in higher rates of cancer including (take a deep breath): colon, bladder, breast, oesophagus, stomach, pancreatic, lung, womb, ovarian, prostate, leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, rectal, gastric, cervical, gallbladder, renal, endometrial and...drum roll please...skin cancer.  Yup, that’s right...we’re learning that moderate levels of UV exposure may actually reduce the incidence of skin cancer.  It’s also interesting to note at this point that skin cancer has one of the lowest death rates on the spectrum.  We’re essentially being told to avoid sunshine for fear of one of the least deadly cancers...while in reality, doing so may expose us to a handful of the most deadly cancers.  Though seemingly counterintuitive, maybe it’s simply common sense.  The sun...she’s kinda a big deal!

The planet Earth runs off sunlight.  It’s our energizer in the sky.  From photosynthesis to the coriolis effect, weather patterns to ocean currents, life on our little blue planet is possible only because of the solar energy beaming down on us every day, 365 days a year.  It only follows that we humans, as an integral part of this creation, would be intricately linked to the sun not only for our survival, but our general health as well.  The modern era is around 100 years old, give or take a hundred years.  Previous to this, humans have spent the last couple 10,000 or more years living IN their environment.  IN the sun.  Without sunscreen!! 

There are two interesting factors that can be linked to the increase of the cancers I mentioned above.  One is latitude, the other is sunscreen use...both of which limit the amount of sunshine that reaches our skin each year.  As you move away from the equator, both the intensity and duration of sun exposure diminishes.  Not coincidentally, the rates of some of the deadliest human cancers increase with this same progression toward the poles.  We can also see this same trend of increases in cancer in countries that have strongly promoted the use of sunscreen.  What, how can this be? Next you’re going to tell me that use of sunscreen actually increases the risk of developing melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer)!  Yup. 

Most of the chemical UV screens used in lotions are petroleum based.  They have names like oxybenzone, octocrylene, octinoxate, and avobenzone.  They’re tested for human safety as single ingredients, and not under UV light.  Hmmm.  But what if the ingredients aren’t so benign when mixed (think bleach and ammonia), or have some kind of oxy-radical reaction when exposed to UV (phototoxicity)?  In college I worked on research studying this very thing.  Many chemicals are cleared by the EPA for release by factories into water sources without testing them under UV light.  We placed a small freshwater crustacean called Daphnia in water with allowable levels of various chemicals for 24 hours.  They were alive and well the next day.  Then we moved our UV light source over the water and looked into the microscope.  They were dead, dead, dead! (sorry, couldn’t resist getting a “Young Guns” movie quote in there)  They had literally exploded.  Daphnia are filter feeders, so they move water through their bodies, and the supposedly “inert” chemicals had punched holes in everything through oxy-radical reaction to the UV light.  Visualize a land mine filled with ball bearings exploding in your cells.  If the chemicals in your sunscreen do this, you can see how it might actually increase your chances of developing melanoma.  Kind of a downer, huh?  It’s gets worse when you consider that one of the worst phototoxic offenders is Vitamin A.  Touted as an anti-aging ingredient in night creams and lotions, it’s added to sunscreen by manufacturers as an “added bonus” to retard the negative effects of sunshine.  But in the presence of sunshine, it may do just the opposite.  You’ll find these sunscreens in aisle 13 next to the Dorian Gray novels:) 

So what’s the answer.  Well, if I were to drag you naked out into the desert and leave you in the sun for a couple months, it would be bad for your health.  Conversely, if I were to lock you in a closet with no sun whatsoever, that too would be bad for your health.  So we can conclude that some amount of sunlight is necessary for a healthy life.  The question now becomes “How much?” rather than “Yes, or No.”  Westerners love extremes.  If I work 40 hrs a week, I can be twice as productive with 80 hrs a week.  If running 5 miles is good for me, then 50 miles will be REALLY healthy.  What we need is balance.  Without a doubt, repeatedly going to the beach and getting horribly burned will increase your risk of skin cancer.  But avoiding sun altogether and covering your entire body in petrochemicals has it’s own set of negative health effects. 

On a summer afternoon, with 40% of your skin exposed, you can get ALL the vitamin D you need for the day in 15-20 minutes.  After that, put on a wide brimmed hat, or some petrochemical free sunscreen and enjoy the rest of your day.  During the winter months in Northern climates it gets much harder.  Even if it were warm enough to be outside, because of the angle of the sun, you’d have to stay outdoors with skin exposed for 3-5 hours.  There are some foods that naturally contain vitamin D, but you couldn’t possibly eat enough on a daily basis to get the recommended amount.  Supplements are iffy.  D2 (Ergocalciferol) is the most common, but due to concerns over its safety, is being displaced by D3 (Cholecalciferol).  In pill form, it’s extremely difficult to absorb and must be of high quality.  Vitamin D supplementation also misses out on all the other positive phototherapeutic effects that can only come from true UV exposure.  Your final (and arguably best option) is 5-15 minutes at a tanning salon once a week until summer once again greets us with the real thing.  The bottom line...we’re sunbeings whether we like it or not.  From circadian rhythms to hormonal regulation of genes, UV light is vital to our health...and it’s time we begin to change the paradigm of the last 30 years which has led us in the wrong direction.

This article could continue even longer than it already is.  If you have more questions, or want to brow-beat us over such a preposterous notion as this, come back and see myself or one of the coaches.  As always, we’d be glad to continue the discussion or learn more about it ourselves.