With this summer arriving earlier and warmer than usual, many of us are ready to enjoy every last drop of the sometimes elusive Pacific Northwest sunshine. Before we venture out for beach days and backyard barbecues, we must ask ourselves whether the sun is a friend, foe or possible both. With the return of the sun can also come many health benefits, particularly, the opportunity to increase one’s vitamin D levels, which can be challenging in this part of the country. The progressive depletion of the ozone layer and resulting increase in solar ultraviolet radiation or UVR, however, translates to higher risk of sunburns, skin diseases and cancers, eye damage and immunity impairment. The sun is, thankfully, our friend (there would literally be no life on earth without it) and there are many ways to reap the benefits of sun exposure while minimizing any deleterious effects.
SAFE SUN EXPOSURE - DOES IT EXIST?
I’ve been reading and thinking a lot lately about sun exposure, sunscreen and vitamin D and there are a lot of opinions on what is safe and where caution should be exercised. Some dermatologists advise to avoid the sun at all cost since, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, “all unprotected ultraviolet exposure contributes to cumulative skin damage, accelerating aging and increasing our lifetime risk of skin cancer.” Even when you wear sunscreen, some UV (of which there are types: UV type A - deeper penetrating to the skin and contributes to skin aging, and UV type B - less penetrating and contributes to sunburns ) reaches the skin, and this may be plenty, at least for fair-skinned individuals. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, has found that Mexican Americans and African Americans are two to three times more likely than Caucasians to have low vitamin D levels. People who use more sun protection or weigh more than average are also more likely to suffer from vitamin D deficiency.
WHAT IS VITAMIN D?
Vitamin D is otherwise known as the sunshine vitamin because it is produced by our bodies when our skin is exposed to UV radiation. The skin produces precursors to the fat soluble hormone that are converted to its active form by the kidneys before circulating through the bloodstream. Low levels of the hormone/vitamin can be associated with rickets, osteoporosis, hypertension, obesity, metabolic disease, frequent infections and even depression and seasonal affective disorder.
FACTORS AFFECTING VITAMIN D LEVELS
1. Latitude: The further away one lives from the equator, the less vitamin D producing light (UVB) reaches the earth especially during the winter.
2. Cloud cover and pollution: These scatter and absorb UVB and therefore decrease vitamin D producing potential.
3. Use of sunscreen: Sunscreen is used to block UVB so it can technically prevent the skin’s capacity to make vitamin D. It is, however, debatable how thoroughly people apply sunscreen so its true effect on vitamin D status is uncertain.
4. Skin tone: Darker skin contains more melanin which prevents UVB skin penetration and is therefore reduces vitamin D synthesis.
5. Weight and Glucose Metabolism: Obesity in diabetic patients is related to lower vitamin D status. A recent studyshowed that “vitamin D deficiency and obesity interact synergistically to heighten the risk of diabetes and other metabolic disorders.”
6. Age: As we age, our bodies are less efficient at producing vitamin D.
SO HOW CAN WE BOTH ENJOY THE GLORIOUS SUNSHINE AND STAY HEALTHY WHILE AT IT?
1. Go outside! – At the right times: Peak sun hours, when the sun’s radiation intensity are highest are between 10am and 2pm. Avoid sun exposure during this time and take other precautions (see below) if you must venture out during this window. Check your local area’s UV Indexforecast often to better help plan your activities.
2. Wear protective clothing: Wide brimmed hats (to shade eye, ears and head) and lightweight, loose-fitting clothing that cover the arms and legs will shield the skin from UVR and reduce sun damage risk by up to 27%. If you are extra sensitive to the sun or will be outdoors for extended periods of time, you may want to invest in clothing containing Ultraviolet Protection Factor which further reduces UVR skin exposure.
3. Seek or make shade: Under and around trees and picnic shelters at parks are great places to spend time. Also try taking an umbrella to the beach with you or setting one up in your backyard along with patio furniture. Keep infants in shade too. This can reduce the risk of multiple burns by up to 30%.
4. Protect your eyes: Sunglasses protect your eyes from UV and reduced your risk of getting cataracts, macular degeneration and other eye problems. Choose a pair that fits well and offers full UVA and UVB protection. Bigger lenses are helpful as they protect the skin around the eye from skin cancers as well.
5. Avoid getting sunburned: Redness, pain/soreness or blisters are signs that your skin has already been overexposed.
SUNSCREEN - A LAST RESORT
If you are able to generally follow the above sun safety guidelines, you will be fairly well protected from UVR. Sunscreen use alone will not prevent skin cancers or all types of skin damage but it can protect you from sunburns which are a major risk factor for melanoma development. Sunscreen must, however, be used properly for it to offer any protection at all. Sunscreen use may be related to prolonged sun exposure especially if a higher SPF product is used. This can lead to an even higher risk of sun damage! Some sunscreens also contain hormone disruptors and possible skin allergens so it is very important to read labels and choose a minimally toxic product to avoid other systemic health problems. Check out EWG’s 2015 list of the best sunscreens here. In general, the best way to use sunscreen is to frequently (every 2 hours) apply a broad spectrum (offering UVA and UVB protection) product that is at least SPF 15 or higher.
So if you are avoiding the sun and even wearing sunscreen, how do you ever get enough vitamin D? Firstly, consider having your vitamin D levels checked by your healthcare provider regularly. You can increase your levels and prevent deficiency by eating vitamin D fortified foods, fatty fish (sardines, tuna, salmon and mackerel) or taking a cod liver oil supplement. Vitamin D3 supplements can also be found in various forms and are often affordable. Breastfed infants should also be supplemented at least 400IU of vitamin D since human milk is not a natural source of the vitamin.
Stay cool, stay healthy and enjoy the summer!
Dr. Adeola Mead, ND is the Natural Choice Network's Healthy Living Content Coordinator. She is a naturopathic physician with a clinical focus on women's health and stress-related illness. Dr. Mead is passionate about using natural medicine education as a powerful healing tool for both individuals and communities.