- Dr. Blake Baggett
Sunlight: Friend or Foe?
Tell me if this sounds familiar: we wake up to an alarm (usually before the sun rises), eat breakfast inside, get in our cars, drive to our offices, work a few hours, eat lunch inside a restaurant, go back to work for a few more hours, get back in the car to drive home where we eat dinner inside and go to bed so we can repeat the following day. I know I’m certainly guilty of this routine. The problem is that we rarely get to spend any time soaking up the sun. It’s no wonder the CDC estimates that 50% of Americans are deficient in vitamin D.
Sunlight is one of those confusing topics. Is it good or is it bad? Take this true or false quiz.
Sunbathing has a deep history of treating many conditions: T/F
Sunlight reduces risk of cancer: T/F
Sunbathing promotes healthy skin, immunity, and digestion: T/F
Sunscreen or sunblock must be worn when exposed to the sun: T/F
Supplementing with vitamin D replaces the need for sun exposure: T/F
Until about 200 years ago, humans mostly lived and worked outdoors in direct sunlight for hours at a time. Until recently, the sun has always been viewed as an essential part of health and healing. Nowadays, our culture and medical community recommend spending as little time in the sun as possible and that responsible sun exposure has little to do with cultivating health.
Ancient cultures such as the Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Romans used sunbathing in treating a wide range of conditions and spent most of their day out in the sun. (#1 is True)
Harnessing the power of the sun to treat conditions and promote health is known as heliotherapy, or sometimes also called phototherapy. Besides being used by ancient cultures, heliotherapy gained a lot of attention in the early 1800’s for the treatment of tuberculosis. In 1903, Niels Ryberg Finsen was awarded a Nobel Prize for his use of heliotherapy in the treatment of lupus vulgaris. As previously mentioned, it is only in the last 100 years or so that we have begun avoiding the sun. Evidence also shows that those who live further from the equator have higher rates of breast, prostate, and colon cancers. Sun exposure, therefore, reduces the risk of some cancers. (#2 is true)
“What about skin cancer,” you ask? Doesn’t sun exposure increase the risk of skin cancer? No, as a matter of fact, responsible sun exposure promotes healthy skin, increases immune function, and improves digestion. (#3 is true)
Irresponsible sunbathing, however, does increase the odds of both skin cancer and premature wrinkling. This includes overuse of tanning beds and laying out in the sun for hours on end especially during mid-day sun. Anything that causes the skin to burn will contribute to increasing incidence of cancer. How do we prevent our skin from burning? Obviously, sunscreen will do the trick. Zinc oxide is an alternative that doesn’t contain all the chemicals of traditional sunscreen. But, what if there was a way to be in the sun for extended time without wearing any form of sunblock AND without increasing our risk of developing skin cancer? This is not only possible but something I highly recommend. The way to do this is by slowly acclimating your skin to increasing amounts of sun exposure. I’m naturally pale-skinned which means when spring and summer roll around I can’t be spending four to five hours in direct sunlight without some form of protection.
This is how I slowly acclimate myself to the sun:
On the first few days I spend approximately 30 minutes in the sun, but not during midday
The following week I’ll spend 45 minutes in the sun, but again, not at midday
The third week I’ll try to get an hour of sun exposure, not at midday
The fourth and following weeks I’m usually safe to repeat these steps in times closer to midday
Even if you are extremely fair skinned this concept can be used even if you must begin at 15 minutes
It may be tough to carve out time to get this must exposure to the sun, but I strongly encourage you try to get every drop you can so that you enjoy times in the sun without sunscreen. (#4 is false)
Most of us believe that vitamin D is the reason we need sunlight, which is partially true. The sun is the greatest, purest, and most bioavailable source of vitamin D. The process the body uses to convert sunlight into vitamin D involves several organs including the skin, liver, and kidneys. The end result is a hormone that has a powerful effect on the body. One of my professors even referred to vitamin D as “hormone D.”
Vitamin D, however, is not the only health benefit of the sun. Proper amounts of sun exposure have been proven to help a wide array of health challenges including the following: acne, psoriasis, and other skin conditions, seasonal depression, reducing inflammation, improving eyesight, lowering blood pressure, cutting blood sugar levels, reducing infectious bacteria by 50%, and even DNA repair. When we supplement with vitamin D we are missing out on so many other health benefits that sunlight offers. (Making #5 false). With that being said, supplementing with vitamin D is not a bad idea. As always, consult your doctor to see if that is appropriate in your specific scenario.
Am I saying to never wear sunscreen? Absolutely not. Most Americans will spend at least a few days each summer at the beach. If you haven’t been building up to spending several hours in direct sunlight then wearing sunscreen is highly encouraged. Traditional sunscreen is full of all sorts of unnecessary and potentially harmful ingredients. It’s usually not a good idea to slather in something toxic and then go bake in the sun. That’s a recipe that results in nothing good. Zinc oxide is always a great alternative, or you can find products that carefully select non-harmful ingredients. I am personally a fan of products from Beauty Counter because of the rigorous selection and testing process all their products go through. To find out more about these products you can contact a local Tuscaloosa representative, Leigh Collins by visit her website beautycounter.com/leighcollins.