Direct Sunshine = Good
I’ve been told to protect myself from direct sunshine for as long as I can remember.
Too much sunshine on my pale skin was a shortcut to skin cancer.
Then, the other day, I read an article about how wrong that advice actually was for my health.
The article referred to a few different pieces of research that surprised me. It should make us question the current American Academy of Dermatology guidance on sun exposure.
They strongly recommend against spending time in sunlight without applying high SPF sunscreen.
The benefits of sunlight
Most of us know that the sun on our skin helps our body produce vitamin D.
The vitamin D produced by your body has been shown to help stave off cancer, heart disease and stroke.
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) suggest we get our Vitamin D from supplements instead.
There’s only one problem with the supplement approach…
In clinical trials, Vitamin D supplementation has failed spectacularly.
Regular exposure to sunlight is important for your circadian rhythm (governs sleep cycles, etc).
Sun exposure helps the body release endorphins, serotonin and nitric oxide into your blood stream.
This combination of goodness reduces the risk of prostate, breast, colorectal and pancreatic cancers.
Want to reduce your risk for heart disease?
Nitric oxide released by the sun exposure has a positive effect on blood pressure.
Sunshine also reduces inflammation and dampens the autoimmune responses.
Then, as you maybe experienced, it also improves virtually every mental condition.
Sun exposure and cancer
It’s true that unprotected exposure to the sun increases the probability of certain skin cancers.
However, you may be surprised by the mortality rate for skin cancer in the US.
26 per 100 000 develop melanoma, the deadly form of skin cancer, each year.
However, fewer than 3 per 100 000 people die from skin cancer in the US each year.
Split the research by racial heritage and you find that people with natural pigmentation have significantly reduced melanoma and skin cancer rates in general.
For heart disease deaths in the US, the number is 209.1 per 100 000 for males and 130.4 per 100 000 for women.
Basically, for every death as the result of skin cancer, a hundred die from cardiovascular disease.
That said, there is a relationship between sun exposure and melanoma that cannot be ignored.
Mostly though it seems people who avoid the sun are more at risk than those who don’t.
In a study by Pelle Lindquist of 30 000 women in Sweden over 20 years they found that sun worshippers had lower rates of blood clots and diabetes.
Although they had higher rates of melanoma, they also were eight times less likely to die from it.
The research also shows a correlation between sun exposure and reduced risk of dying from heart disease.
Avoidance of sun exposure is a risk factor of a similar magnitude as smoking, in terms of life expectancyPelle Lindquist – Author of “Avoidance of sun exposure as a risk factor for major causes of death: a competing risk analysis of the Melanoma in Southern Sweden cohort”
Get enough sunlight
For the skin to produce vitamin D along with the other benefits, the sunlight exposure must be on unprotected skin.
The article recommends enjoying the sunlight without sunscreen on days where the UV index is 3 or lower.
An UV index below 3 is typically the case throughout the winter in North America (but do make sure by checking your preferred weather app first!).
The article also recommends spending some time outside without protection on days with an UV index above 3 (but more way more limited!).
The baseline recommendation is to avoid getting a sunburn.
The UK, Australian and New Zealand health authorities all operate with similar recommendations to the ones described in the outsideonline.com article (above).