Let’s face it. Lately the sun has gotten a bad rap. Many fear the sun’s rays and worry about skin cancer. But most of us live in the Desert by choice and 350+ days of sunshine has something to do with it. So can we enjoy the sun?
“I think the current message that all unprotected sun exposure is bad for you is too extreme,” states Michael Holick, M.D. director of the Vitamin D Research Lab at Boston University Medical Center. “The original message was that people should limit their sun exposure, not that they should avoid the sun entirely. I do believe that some unprotected exposure to the sun is important for health.”
“Nobody wants to get skin cancer, but we’ve gone from sun worship to sun dread,” states Dr. Robert S. Stern, chair of the Department of Dermatology at Harvard affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He has coined the phrase “solar-phobes”: people so concerned about getting skin cancer that they stay inside or cover every bit of skin.
The marketing of ultra-blocking sunscreens and special sun-protective clothing plays into these fears. However, the same UVB wavelengths that these sunscreens are designed to block also do some good: They kick off the chemical and metabolic chain reaction that produces vitamin D and research now shows that many people have low vitamin D levels.[sup]1[/sup]
All agree that the sun’s radiation can help processes in the body work better, so let’s take a look at some of the positive benefits of the sun as determined by recent medical studies.
Boost the immune system: Vitamin D is essential to and can boost your immune system helping to fight off disease more effectively.[sup]2[/sup]
Lower cholesterol: Cholesterol is converted into Vitamin D by sunlight, therefore avoiding the sun will likewise undermine our ability to synthesize vitamin D.[sup]3[/sup]
Boost metabolism: Sensible sun exposure can help increase metabolism, increasing the rate at which you burn calories aiding in weight loss and fitness.[sup]4[/sup]
Enhanced kidney function: There is a high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in those with chronic kidney disease. The Kidneys remove waste from the body, so getting proper sun exposure can help decrease the toxicity in your bloodstream.[sup]6[/sup]
Stronger skeleton: Because of its role in helping the body to absorb calcium, getting sufficient sun exposure for the production of Vitamin D can help prevent bone disease resulting in less brittle bones.[sup]7[/sup]
Reduce stress: Taking some time to enjoy the sun can reduce stress aiding in better sleep and overall health.[sup]8[/sup]
Reduce anxiety: Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is often lacking in people with anxiety and depression, is thought to be increased by Vitamin D, as possibly are other essential neurotransmitters such as Dopamine.[sup]8[/sup]
Fight Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Snowbirds know this one! If you suffer from SAD during the winter, introduce more sunlight into your environment through open shades and windows.[sup]8[/sup]
Reduce the chance of multiple sclerosis: There are indications that Vitamin D can help ameliorate some of the symptoms associated with MS and even fight against its development. This theory is supported by the geographic distribution of MS, which is nearly zero in equatorial regions and increases dramatically with latitude in both hemispheres.[sup]9[/sup]
Reduce risk of rheumatoid arthritis: Women living in the northeastern US are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis (RA), suggesting a link between the autoimmune disease and vitamin D deficiency.[sup]10[/sup]
Reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes: Multiple studies suggest that Vitamin D, along with calcium, may help reduce the risk for developing the disease.11 In addition, both nutrients may be beneficial in optimizing glucose metabolism.[sup]12[/sup]
Prevent high blood pressure: A growing body of research suggests that vitamin D may play a role in blood pressure regulation and heart health. It is known, for example, that cases of high blood pressure increase during the winter and in places that are further from the equator.[sup]13[/sup]
Cancer risk reduction: Studies show that Vitamin D could actually aid in reducing the risk of different cancers. And some cancers are actually encouraged by a lack of Vitamin D.[sup]8[/sup]
Dermatologists May Disagree
The nation’s largest dermatology group remains unconvinced. In a recent press release, the American Academy of Dermatology wrote that they were “deeply concerned” that messages that unprotected sun exposure may have health benefits could “mislead the public about the very real danger of sun exposure, the leading cause of skin cancer.”
As with all things related to health and wellness, moderation is the key. The recommended exposure to direct sunlight is 15-20 minutes daily14, however a sun burn is never recommended. For longer periods of exposure, SPF 15+ should be selected and used regularly based on skin type.
So be wise, but get outside and embrace that big yellow ball in the sky…I’ll see you out in the sun!
Resources: 1) Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide June 2004; 2) Nature Immunology, March 2010 Professor Carsten Geisler, of the Department of International Health, Immunology and Microbiology at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark; 3) 2. Adams and Hollis, “Vitamin D: Synthesis, Metabolism, and Clinical Measurement.” In: Coe and Favus, eds., Disorders of Bone and Mineral Metabolism, Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins (2002) p. 159. 4) Anticancer Res. 2009 Sep;29(9):3713-20. The dependency of vitamin D status on body mass index, gender, age and season.; 5) Gregory A. Plotnikoff, MD, of the University of Minnesota Medical School; 6) Vitamin D and outcomes in chronic kidney disease. Cheng S, Coyne D. 2007 Mar;16(2):77-82. Division of Nephrology, Washington University School of Medicine; 7) Sunlight and vitamin D for bone health and prevention of autoimmune diseases, cancers, and cardiovascular disease. Holick MF. Department of Medicine, Boston University Medical Center 2004 Dec;80(6 Suppl):1678S-88S; 8) Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2010 Jun;31(6):385-93. Vitamin D and depression: where is all the sunshine? Penckofer S, Kouba J, Byrn M, Estwing Ferrans C. Loyola University Chicago, School of Nursing, Maywood, Illinois; 9) Department of Biochemistry, University of Wisconsin-Madison Proc Soc Exp Biol Med. 1997 Oct;216(1):21-7.Vitamin D and multiple sclerosis.Hayes CE, Cantorna MT, DeLuca HF.; 10) Arthritis Rheum. 2004 Jan;50(1):72-7.Vitamin D intake is inversely associated with rheumatoid arthritis: results from the Iowa Women’s Health Study. Merlino LA, Curtis J, Mikuls TR, Cerhan JR, Criswell LA, Saag KG; Iowa Women’s Health Study.College of Public Health, University of Iowa, Iowa City. 11) DIABETES: Vitamin D and Calcium Intake in Relation to Type 2 Diabetes in Women Anastassios G. Pittas, MD, Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, Tufts-New England Medical Center; 12)The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism Vol. 92, No. 6 2017-2029 Copyright © 2007 by The Endocrine Society 13) BP: Lind, L, Wengle, B, Wide, L, et al. Reduction of Blood Pressure During Long-Term Treatment With Active Vitamin D (Alphacalcidol) Is Dependent on Plasma Renin Activity and Calcium Status. A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study. Am J Hypertens 1989; 2:20.(14) National Institutes of Health