We have been told for years to cover up and avoid the sun, for fear of getting skin cancer. Even with all of the focus and effort put on using sunscreen, melanoma the deadliest form of skin cancer, continues to rise. Should we really be demonizing the sun or is there another underlying reason why skin cancer has been increasing over the years? Instead, maybe we should be out in the sun making Vitamin D.
Sunlight is made up of ultraviolet radiation, the UVB rays and the UVA rays. Our interested in preventing skin cancer has been going on since 1928, when research was published suggesting that the UVB rays caused cancer. It’s these rays that penetrate deep into the cells, and over time can harm the cells, causing cancer. Then in 1980, we tagged UVA rays as also becoming suspect in causing cancer. Our solution was to develop sunscreens that reflects or absorb both the UVB and UVA ultraviolet radiation, theoretically preventing cancer.
Skin cancer can be deadly if it’s the melanoma type. However, less than 2% of the skin cancer is melanoma and there is some evidence that sunlight does not cause it. In fact, there is no clear link between sunscreen and prevention of melanoma. We have significantly increased our use of sunscreens and yet the incidence of cancer has also increased.
One thing everyone generally agrees on – to reduce the melanoma risk avoid getting sunburn. But don’t avoid all sun exposure.
It’s the UVB rays that cause sunburn, but long term exposure to UVA rays causes other more subtle damage.
Several cancer experts have postulated that sunscreen itself could be part of the problem. Many sunscreens contain endocrine disrupting chemicals and toxins, which may be one of the factors leading to an increase in skin cancers. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has some great information on the lack of evidence review of these ingredients in sunscreen by the FDA.
Vitamin D on the other hand is protective against cancer, according to numerous published research papers. Almost 50% of the populations worldwide is deficient in vitamin D.
Vitamin D is characterized as a fat soluble vitamin. It’s one of the 13 vitamins discovered in the early 20th century by doctors studying nutritional deficiencies. Even though we call it a “vitamin”, it technically is not. It breaks the main vitamin rule because it’s not obtained from dietary sources, but made by our own body. When you consume foods or supplements containing Vitamin D, our body has to transform it into something it can use.
The role of Vitamin D
It is made by our skin from cholesterol. As Sunlight, specifically UVB rays, hits your skin you automatically convert the cholesterol to this magical nutrient.
Vitamin D plays and important role in many aspects of health. It’s important to prevent bone fractures, cancer, cardiovascular disease, neuromuscular problems, hormone issues, and diabetes.
Deficiency has been linked to osteoporosis, autoimmune disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, infections, and even schizophrenia.
The benefits of Vitamin D
The maintenance of blood levels of calcium and phosphorus to enable mineralization of the bone. It’s needed for bone growth and bone remodeling by both osteoblasts and osteoclasts.
Plays a role in the modulation of cell growth, making it an important cancer-prevention nutrient.
Immune functions, fighting infections and acting as an anti-inflammatory. For anyone with an autoimmune condition, ensuring vitamin D sufficiency is paramount. It has even shown to be effective with serious infections such as HIV.
Decreases muscle and joint pain.
It plays a role in various eye syndromes and macular degeneration, which is the number one cause of blindness among aging Americans.
Important role in the prevention of bowel diseases such as colorectal cancer and inflammatory bowel disease.
And it can alleviate symptoms of depression.
All other hormones will be low when Vitamin D is low.
Upregulates Thyroid receptors.
Making Vitamin D
The best way to get Vitamin D is to expose as much of your skin to UVB sunlight. As I have already mentioned, these are the exact rays that sunscreen targets. So, if you are using sunscreen, you aren’t making vitamin D.
Don’t be scared of getting out in the sun, but do it responsibly. The high incidence of skin cancer isn’t due to the sun, but to the lack of healthy fats in our diet to produce the cholesterol that our skin needs. It’s these fatty acids that protect us from burning, which is ultimately responsible for skin cancer.
When and Where
Making Vitamin D is influenced by season, time of day, latitude, altitude, air pollution, skin pigmentation, sunscreen use, passing through glass and plastic, and aging. If the sun is low in the sky, UVB rays can blocked by the atmosphere before they can get to you. Clouds, ozone and pollution also block the rays. They don’t penetrate glass or clothing, either. Unlike UVB rays, UVA rays pass unfiltered through the atmosphere and go through windows.
To stimulate Vitamin D production the sun needs to be at a minimum of about 50 degrees, or greater, above the horizon (90 degrees would be directly overhead). A great way to test – your shadow will be slightly shorter than you are tall. If the shadow you cast is the same length or longer than your height, you will not produce Vitamin D.
The farther north you go in North American the sun sits lower in the sky. So in much of North America it is not possible to produce Vitamin D during the winter – which is why it’s great that your body stores it!
altitude + time of day + season > 50 degrees to make Vitamin D
Here in Boise – depending on whether you live in the valley or in the foothills,(altitude) you can make vitamin D from late March/beginning of April until the end of September (season), between the hours of 10:00am to 4:00pm (time of day).
Here’s a few tips to build up your sun tolerance and resiliency:
Make sure you are eating plenty of colorful vegetables. This will increase antioxidants, vitamin A, and vitamin C.
Limit your initial exposure and slowly work your way up. Your body responds to an increase in sun exposure by providing natural protection – getting tan. Just do it responsibly without burning. Expose as much of your skin as possible for a short amount of time. As little as 15 minutes a day during the “Vitamin D Hours” can help. Where your pants, long sleeve shirts and wide brimmed hats to help protect you instead of sunscreen. Move to the shade when you have had the amount of sun you need for the day.
Get your Essential Fatty Acids balanced. Most of us have plenty of Omega 6 in our modern lifestyle diets, found in most seed oils. However, the amount of Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish, flax and hemp seeds needs to be in our diet in the same amount. In other words, we are looking for an almost 1:1 ratios of these two types of essential fatty acids. This will have an added side benefit of also reducing inflammation.
Eat Plenty of Saturated Fat. Studies have shown that a higher saturated fat diet improves UV resistance, make sure that you are getting plenty of coconut oil and butter.
Drink green tea. There is some evidence that green tea inhibits skin tumors by controlling inflammation and preventing DNA damage.
Sunlight and Vitamin D. A global perspective on health. DermatoEndocrinology 2013 Jan 1; 5(1): 51–108.
Vitamin D: The “sunshine” vitamin. J Pharmacol Pharmacother. 2012 Apr-Jun: 3(2): 118-126.