The Truth About Sun Exposure

sun-exposure-benefits.jpg

Hello dear friends!

Springtime is coming up quickly, and summer is not far behind- the season of beach vacations, outdoor sports, barbeques, and stocking up on sunscreen. Most of us have been raised with the notion that sun exposure is dangerous for us, and that we must do whatever we can to protect ourselves from the harmful rays. We buy the highest SPF sunscreen that money can buy, don wide-brim hats and extra dark sunglasses, and even shell out the big bucks for clothes that are UV-proof. But how much benefit are we really getting from taking all of these measures?

Cancer is a scary thing, and certainly nothing to take lightly. Nearly 100,000 cases of skin cancer occur in the U.S. each year, and aggressive melanomas can be deadly. However, we have to think about how much of the marketing around “sun protection” products is purely fear-based, and how much we’ve been buying into the idea that the life-giving sun is actually a serious threat to our health.

Americans are spending more time inside than ever before, and yet we are getting sick at the fastest rate we’ve ever seen in history. We can be pale and pasty, hidden away from the sun’s rays, but we still come down with a myriad of other diseases, especially those of metabolic and immune dysfunction. Some scientists are beginning to find correlations between the amount of sunny outdoor time enjoyed and the rates of things like depression, heart disease, cancer, and colds/flus. Not surprisingly, those who went out into the sun more frequently were shown to be happier, more optimistic, caught fewer colds, took fewer sick days from work, and had lower incidence of major diseases.

Now, you can draw many correlations from these kinds of studies, citing that fresh air and exercise are playing a role in these sunbathers’ health, and you’d be right- they certainly are. But if you focus your lens on one particular compound, the pro-sun evidence becomes even more compelling. Vitamin D, technically a hormone, is something that our bodies cannot manufacture all by themselves, but is something that is crucial for several major metabolic processes. You probably know that UV light is required for Vitamin D production, which is why it’s often dubbed, “the sunshine vitamin”. So what happens when you block UV rays from penetrating the skin, like when you wear sunscreen? That’s right, your body can’t make it!

I’m certainly not advocating for everyone to throw out their sunscreen, but I think it’s time for a serious readjustment of our expectations of what it can do for us. Several major studies conducted in the last decade have repeatedly failed to find a link between SPF usage and cases of skin cancer. But you’ll never read that on a bottle of Banana Boat! And depending on the type of sunscreen you use, you may be at greater risk for cancer from the ingredients themselves, than any sun exposure might give! But I digress…

truth-sun-exposure.jpg

As a society, we are suffering from a serious deficiency of Vitamin D, and our fear of the sun (and lack of time to access it) is actually making us sicker. There are many amazing functions of this little wonder molecule, but here are just a few of the major ones:

  • This hormone acts as an escort, to shuttle calcium and phosphorous into our bones, and regulates the levels of calcium in our blood, which is important for the functioning of all of our cells.
  • It helps out the immune system and improves immunological resilience by assisting white blood cell production and the recognition of “self” cells, preventing autoimmune conditions.
  • It smoothes out intercellular communication, which is needed for proper gene expression and protein building.

There are millions of Vitamin D receptors on our cells in every corner of our body, and when there is not enough Vitamin D to go around, physiological functions may weaken. Some symptoms of deficiency are:

  • Unexplained depression
  • Tendency to catch colds
  • Slow wound healing
  • Brittle, weak, or achy bones
  • GI upset or trouble absorbing nutrients
  • Splotchy skin, dark circles under the eyes
  • Unexplained weakness or fatigue

Even if you don’t recognize any of these symptoms in yourself, there are certain risk factors that may make you more susceptible for a Vitamin D deficiency. These can be clues to help you increase your sun time or pay close attention to any health imbalances in the future:

  • Living in a highly polluted area
  • Chronic use of sunscreen
  • Spending a lot of time indoors or in a car
  • Living in areas with limited access to sunlight (tall buildings or overcrowding, especially)
  • Working long hours in an indoor office

Our bodies are designed for some sun exposure on a daily basis, even if it’s just for 10-15 minutes. If we expose just 20% of our skin to the sun for just 20 minutes, we can easily make all the Vitamin D we need for the day- pretty incredible, right? And did you know that, in only 30 minutes of sunshine on an average summer day, your body can manufacture over 10,000 IU of Vitamin D? That's 30x what the average American gets in their daily diet! Even a primal-aligned diet can only reach about 1,000 IU in a day, so it's important to realize that no matter how clean your nutrition strategy is, your body still needs sun exposure to make the optimal amount of this crucial health-giving hormone. Plus, it's been shown that the Vitamin D that we make naturally through sunshine actually lasts longer in our cells than that which we take through food and supplements. Pretty compelling pro-sun science, I'd say!

sunshine-healthy.jpg

We just need to get over the fear that the sun is dangerous! Granted, for people who live in the northern latitudes, live in cloudy climates, or simply don’t have much access to sunlight, it may be necessary to up your intake of Vitamin D-rich foods, and consider taking supplemental D if your blood levels are low. Thankfully, there are lots of delicious foods that contain high amounts of Vitamin D, including:

  • Fresh, wild-caught salmon
  • Pastured egg yolks
  • Grass fed beef liver
  • Fortified dairy products or juices
  • Cod liver oil

Regardless of where you live and how you eat, I think it’s time to change our conversation around sun exposure, especially when it comes to the importance of Vitamin D to our health and vitality. You can supplement with it and eat foods rich in it, but nothing is as efficient as the sunshine! Primal wisdom recommends that you get just enough sun to maintain a slight tan year-round. When in doubt, it's recommended to expose larger parts of your body for shorter amounts of time, rather than smaller parts for longer durations. Because yes, too much sun on a small area (like hands, face, etc...) can cause damage over time, so roll up those pant-legs and sit out for 20-30 minutes every day, whenever possible. Bonus points if you can stick your feet in the grass or sand, and get some earthing benefits too!

So friends, what are your thoughts? Are you still afraid of catching rays? Ask me your questions below!

And as always...

~ Hoping you feel as well as possible ~