“I've found that there is always some beauty left - in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you.”
~ Anne Frank, “The Diary of a Young Girl,” 1947
By Jennifer Wolff-Gillispie HWP, LC
Do sunny days remind you of fun childhood adventures; playing in the park on warm, clear afternoons, or splashing in pools to find refuge from the summer heat? Depending on the region you grew up in, you may have spent carefree hours basking in the sun's rays without giving a second thought to the safety of doing so. You’ve smiled seeing dogs and cats napping in warm spots on patios and gardens, and unbelievably observed sunflowers and other emerging plants turning to face the sun. And while you’re inexplicably drawn to its golden rays, have you also worried about the sun’s impact on your health?
Throughout history there have been time periods where having a fair complexion was en vogue. Though it may seem ironic, ancient Egypt (a society that revered the sun as a source of divinity) believed having a fair complexion was synonymous with beauty, and sun exposure was avoided. They went as far as creating creams and balms to lighten their skin, as well as preparations to treat sunburns.
However, it wasn’t until the late 1800s when a landmark study by Erik Johan Widmark of Stockholm was published that proved UV radiation caused skin erythema and burns, that the idea of skin protection went mainstream. This finding marked the beginning of companies vying to develop a product that would effectively protect its wearers from the sun's rays.
In 1935 (15 years after photos of Coco Chanel’s tan body on vacation were published, and inspired the nation to begin sunbathing), Eugene Schueler, founder of L’Oreal, developed the first sun tanning oil with UV blocking capabilities. In the years that followed, the U.S. population embraced the once frowned upon act of sunbathing, and began donning even more revealing bathing suits in pursuit of the perfect tan. The United States Government encouraged people to get their fill of sunlight in an effort to prevent rickets.
Henry Oliver Lancaster, an Australian professor, found a correlation in 1956 between melanoma and latitude (more intense sun), and concluded that too much exposure was linked to higher instances of cancer. Despite the shocking discovery, golden skin became the Western standard of beauty, and a supposed reflection of one's youth, health, and vitality. Companies like Coppertone and Bain de Soleil rushed onto the scene with promises of the perfect formulation to get you there.
By the 1970s, the incidence rate of skin cancer was 1.5 people out of 100,000. That has risen exponentially to 3.8 out of 100,000 between the years of 2015–2017, and is expected to increase further in years to come. With such a significant increase, there has been speculation as to why, and the sun is usually the scapegoat.
In 1985, a junior researcher at British Antarctic Survey (BAS) published a paper that stated there had been a steady decline in the Earth’s ozone layer (an invisible shield absorbing harmful UV rays from the sun) since the 1970s. This finding led to the 1987 Montreal Protocol which agreed to slow production and usage of ozone-depleting substances to allow the ozone to heal itself. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
“Ozone layer depletion increases the amount of UVB that reaches the Earth’s surface. Laboratory and epidemiological studies demonstrate that UVB causes non-melanoma skin cancer, and plays a major role in malignant melanoma development.”
With consideration to the above notion, there is a less known factor that has played a part in the link between the sun and cancer. A newly emerging theory as cited on PubMed states:
“Although epidemiological evidence supports the role of solar radiation in the etiology of cutaneous malignant melanoma (MM) among Caucasians, solar exposure alone cannot explain all the epidemiological patterns of MM. This cancer can arise from both noncutaneous and cutaneous sites not exposed to the sun. Evidence is lacking for the involvement of solar exposure in the etiology of most MM among non-Caucasians. Moreover, among Caucasians, skin pigmentation and other genetically determined factors appear to be important in the risk of MM. Trauma, dietary factors (particularly retinoids), hormone factors, occupational exposures, viruses, and drugs can also influence risk.”
One blatant offender, loaded with hormone disrupting chemicals is, ironically, sunscreen. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently released this information:
“The ingredients oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and avobenzone are all systemically absorbed into the body after one use (Matta 2019, Matta 2020), according to studies published by the FDA, which also found that they could be detected on the skin and in the blood weeks after no longer being used (Matta 2020). Previous studies detected many sunscreen ingredients in breast milk and urine samples (Schlumpf 2008, Schlumpf 2010).
In addition, it’s possible for sunscreen users to inhale ingredients in sunscreen sprays and ingest some of the ingredients they apply to their lips, so the ingredients must not be harmful to the lungs or internal organs.
This constant exposure to sunscreen chemicals raises concerns, especially because there is not enough safety data for most ingredients. We have even more concerns about ingredients such as oxybenzone, which have been linked to hormone disruption by numerous studies.”
The information available today confirms using carcinogenic ingredients on and around your body can negatively impact your overall wellness. It is therefore imperative to steer clear of these synthetic chemicals. Instead, opt for ways to cover yourself during extended sun exposure, using sun-protective hats and clothing. If you’d like information on sunscreen safety, the Environmental Working Group has a list of sunscreens with accompanying safety data.
A Glance at Vitamin D
The current daily recommended dosage of vitamin D for adults is 600-800 IU (International Units), however, the Endocrine Society recommends between 1,500-2,000 IU. You can reach these limits by spending 20–30 minutes in the sun (with as much skin exposed as possible) several times a week, but factors such as time of day, geographic location (there is more exposure in Equatorial regions), the amount of melanin in your skin, age, and obesity should be considered.
From Cleveland Clinic, “Vitamin D Deficiency”:
“Vitamin D is an essential vitamin that your body uses for normal bone development and maintenance. Vitamin D also plays a role in your nervous system, musculoskeletal system and immune system.”
While you may be inclined to forgo the sun, and instead supplement with vitamin D, you might want to think this through. Beyond your body’s ability to use sunlight to synthesize vitamin D, research has found that the sun is a pivotal component of health. Current studies point to the many ways immune system optimization, cardiovascular health, hormone regulation, and mood are all linked to getting adequate sun exposure.
In addition, there are studies addressing the potential dangers for the average person supplementing with vitamin D. The threat comes from the influence vitamin D has on calcium metabolism, which can cause atherosclerosis, heart disease, diabetes, cystic ovaries and breasts, as well as some cancers.
This stems from calcium deposited incorrectly due to a lack of proper levels of vitamin K2, which is responsible for activating the hormone (osteocalcin)—needed to secure calcium to the bone. Without K2, calcium can get deposited to unwanted and harmful places in your body, such as your arteries. To increase your serum K2, organic dairy, pastured egg yolks, grass-fed/finished organ meats, and natto are whole food, unprocessed dietary sources.
Additionally, vitamin D supplements can cause mineral dysregulation, and are attributed to magnesium deficiencies, reducing copper bioavailability, impacting iron absorption which lowers cellular ATP (adenosine triphosphate: cellular energy generated by the mitochondria) and kidney production. They can also block your body's ability to assimilate and utilize retinol (vitamin A).
Shine Brightly Sun Worshipers
From Georgetown University Medical Center, “Sunlight Offers Surprise Benefit – It Energizes Infection Fighting T Cells”:
““We all know sunlight provides vitamin D, which is suggested to have an impact on immunity, among other things. But what we found is a completely separate role of sunlight on immunity,” says the study’s senior investigator, Gerard Ahern, PhD, associate professor in the Georgetown’s Department of Pharmacology and Physiology. “Some of the roles attributed to vitamin D on immunity may be due to this new mechanism.”’
“They specifically found that low levels of blue light, found in sun rays, makes T cells move faster—marking the first reported human cell responding to sunlight by speeding its pace.”
“T cells, whether they are helper or killer, need to move to do their work, which is to get to the site of an infection and orchestrate a response,” Ahern says. “This study shows that sunlight directly activates key immune cells by increasing their movement.””
A study from PLOS ONE, “Simulated sunlight decreases the viability of SARS-CoV-2 in mucus,” looked at the ability of sunlight (a solar simulator was used) to disable the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and found:
“Natural sunlight harbors three types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation: UVA (315–400 nm) which is almost completely absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, UVB (280–315 nm) which is partially absorbed, and UVC (100–280 nm) which reaches the Earth. While UVC radiation is considered germicidal and has been shown to deactivate microorganisms, including SARS-CoV-2, in a variety of settings, radiation in the UVA and UVB spectral ranges are also known to cause significant damage to nucleic acids.
These observations suggest that sunlight penetrating the atmosphere may also act as an antimicrobial agent. (In the study) SARS-CoV-2 decreased significantly faster when exposed to sunlight versus exposure to the same conditions with sunlight removed.”
So in addition to boosting your immune system, sunlight can directly fight microbes when they are exposed to a solar source.
In weighing the pros and cons of sunbathing, it’s fair to say that time spent in the sun will certainly do more good than harm if you take care not to get over-exposed. Throw on a wide brim hat, and leave your sunglasses at home, as they block light from reaching your brain. This in turn prevents signaling your skin to prepare for the sun, as well as interfering with your circadian rhythms.
Another benefit is the positive effect the sun (and its UV rays) has on your mood. A study titled “Effect of ultraviolet light on mood, depressive disorders and well-being” found the following:
“Of the 7 included studies, 6 showed a positive effect of UV light on mood, depressive scores or SAD which supports a positive correlation between ultraviolet light exposure and mood improvement.”
Amazingly the benefits don’t stop there. Time lounging under the sun’s rays can improve your sleep, reduce your stress, help with weight management, and boost your longevity. It’s clear, sunlight is vital for flourishing health, and one pillar of a healthy lifestyle.
Published on September 21, 2023.
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