The Benefits of Sunlight
When I was 11 years old (in 1957) my family moved from Manhattan, one of the 5 borough’s of NY City, to Coney Island, at the southern tip of Brooklyn, another of the borough’s of NY City. I grew up spending most of my summers on the beach. The first week or two of each summer I worked at developing my tan so that I did not have to worry about getting a sunburn. It was my understanding that sunlight was healthy and except for getting a severe sunburn there was no downside to sun exposure. At no time during my early years did anyone ever warn me about the dangers of sun exposure or the risk of skin cancer from sun exposure. I would start the summer with dark tanning oil (with no sunscreen) and within a week I would have a ‘healthy’ tan so that I no longer had to worry about getting a burn. It was not until after using sunscreen (around 1990) that I developed skin cancer. A girlfriend offered me her ‘dark tanning’ oil which I used for a week gradually increasing my exposure, but after a week I noticed that I was not getting any color. I then noticed that her ‘dark tanning’ oil had an SPF of 4. Assuming I had gotten some protection from the week I spent in the sun while using it, I spent a day in the sun without the sunscreen and got a severe burn with blistering on my feet. It was shortly after that that I developed a basal cell carcinoma.
Today people are warned to avoid the sun at all costs, and when they go into the sun to cover themselves with clothing or sunscreen to avoid skin cancer. Is the advise we are given about sunlight exposure as wrong as the advise we have been given about a low fat/high carb diet for our health? Prior to the mass marketing of sunscreens melanoma skin cancer was lower near the equator and higher as we moved away from the equator. Since the mass marketing of sunscreen the incidence of skin cancer has been increasing along with the use of sunscreen, although this could be due in part to the increase of pollutants in the air it certainly appears to be correlated with the increase in the use of sunscreen, just as the increase in heart disease correlated with the change from butter to margarine and the recommendation of a ‘low fat’ (high carb) diet..
As early as 1822 it was recognized that rickets in children was the result of lack of exposure to the sun. 80% of children in Europe suffered from rickets, and sunlight exposure was found to cure and prevent rickets. In 1897 it was discovered that red light (mercury arc lamps) could cure Lupus Vulgaris, resulting in the 1903 Nobel Prize. The following quote from a 1929 book titled “Sunlight and Heath” was recited by Nadine Artemis at Longevity Now Conference #11: “Sunlight is the first cosmetic. Properly aired and sunlit skin becomes velvety supple tissue immune from anything of the nature of pimples and acne and incapable of infection. Skin properly pigmented by sunbathing becomes firm and strong, yet delicate and soft followed by filling out of the exposed skin and smoothing away of wrinkles, and enhanced beauty is the outcome.” In 1931 the US Government recommended giving babies “a coat of tan all over” gradually exposing them to avoid sunburn. It was recognized that sun exposure stimulated growth and prevented rickets. By 1939 sunlamps were being used in NY City to cure and prevent rickets. Over 100 years ago doctors in Switzerland recognized that while tuberculosis was rampant at lower altitudes no one living at altitudes above 5,000 feet got tuberculosis. A group of 36 clinics in the Swiss Alps successfully treated rickets, TB, Lupus and smallpox using nothing more than proper nutrition and heliotherapy, where the treatment consisted of having the patients lay in the sun.
One of the acknowledged benefits of the sun is the production of Vitamin D. The importance of vitamin D and the fact that it does not appear naturally in very many foods has resulted in supplementing it in foods such as milk but anyone studying Vitamin D levels will realize that Vitamin D levels are unfortunately low despite this. Doctors consider a ‘normal’ level of Vitamin D to be 25 nannograms per milliliter (ng/ml), although many people are below even this level, but more advantageous levels appear to be between 50-75 ng/ml, with toxicity not occurring until over 150 ng/ml. Toxicity can theoretically occur from extremely high oral doses but cannot occur from sun exposure since it is regulated by a negative feedback loop in the body that prevents toxicity. Vitamin D refers to a group of fat soluble ‘secosteroids’ needed to facilitate the absorption of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphate and zinc. Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) is converted in the liver to calcidiol (25 hydroxy vitamin D) which is measured in the blood and in the kidneys Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) is converted to 125 di-hydroxyl vitamin D and Vitamin D3 is converted to calcitriol which is considered the biologically active form circulating in the blood and regulating calcium and phosphate to promote healthy bones and regulate neuromuscular and immune function. While it was discovered while trying to find the dietary substance that was lacking that caused rickets, Vitamin D could be better classified as a hormone rather than a vitamin.
While Vitamin D supplementation can be beneficial, or even necessary where direct sunlight is inadequate, sunlight provides benefits beyond producing Vitamin D. It helps regulate our circadian rhythm, helping regulate cortisol and melatonin production. It produces beta endorphins (making us ‘feel good’ and more relaxed). It promotes wound healing, stimulates the immune system, and despite warnings to the contrary, the infrared rays have been shown to reduce wrinkling of the skin. It produces Nitric Oxide which stimulates blood circulation and reduces blood pressure, and (possibly due in part to Vitamin D production) it increases bone density. It has even been suggested that if you eat a lot of greens (chlorophyll) sunlight can penetrate the skin and active the chlorophyll directly producing additional energy.
Recommendations to get sun exposure in early morning and evening but avoid it at noon is also misdirected. The UVA rays which penetrate the skin more deeply, have been associated with skin cancer and can alter the immune system can more readily penetrate the atmosphere and skin in the morning and evening than UVB rays. It is the UVB rays that are blocked by the atmosphere that stimulate the skin to produce melanin which is the bodies natural sunscreen which protects the skin from the harmful UVA rays and which produces the Vitamin D. It is only when the sun is high in the sky that it facilitates Vitamin D production and this is why Vitamin D production is lower in the winter, probably contributing to the increase in colds and flu in the winter.
Of course precautions should be taken to prevent sunburn, such as gradually increasing sun exposure while building a healthy tan. This is worth the effort to allow you to get the full benefits of sunlight exposure. The UVB rays help in Vitamin D production and help produce beta endorphins (feel good hormones), although it is the UVB rays that can cause sunburn, the UVB rays help produce melanin which gives us the tan to protect against the harmful UVA rays. (This is why using sunscreen which primarily block the UVB rays to prevent us from tanning and burning as well as from producing Vitamin D makes us more vulnerable to the harmful effects of UVA rays) UVA rays also stimulate the immune system, produces Nitric Oxide, helps wound healing and helps produce beta endorphins so limiting it is good but avoiding it altogether may not be. The blue light of the sun helps regulate our circadian rhythm, lowers melatonin levels and improves our mood. (This is why ‘light box’ therapy is effective for seasonal effective disorder (SAD)). The red and infrared light has been shown to improve wound healing and reduce wrinkles. So embrace the sun. Treat it with respect if you are not adjusted to it, but it is worth the effort to adjust to the sun so that you can enjoy it’s many benefits.