Let the Sun In: Shining Light on the Sunshine Controversy
Have you ever seen a turtle basking on a rock in the sunshine on a spring day? It’s easy to imagine how good it must feel to warm one’s very blood with the sun’s rays after a cold winter spent in hibernation. With just a bit of imagination, it’s easy to guess at the pleasure the cold-blooded creatures experience while sunbathing. We can relate to the warm sensation of wellness that suffuses the body after just a few moments in the sun.
The drive to feel the sun’s rays on one’s skin is deeply ingrained. But these days, we’re liable to be nagged by doubts about the possible dangers of sun exposure. And chances are you’re already wearing some sport of chemical or physical sunscreen whenever you venture out. That’s because we’ve been thoroughly indoctrinated to fear the sun and what it can do to our skin. From the Surgeon General to the American Cancer Society, we’ve heard exhortations to avoid sunshine.
Ultraviolet light from sunshine drives vitamin D production in the body. But it’s also linked to “photoaging,” a self-explanatory term that alludes to the premature skin damage that can occur when one “worships” the sun a little too much. It’s especially true of fair-skinned individuals. They burn easily and tend to experience skin cancer at higher rates than darker-skinned people. So any advice to minimize sun exposure is arguably logical.
But it’s also controversial. For instance, although the American Cancer Society recommends sun avoidance, they fail to recognize that cancer rates are higher among societies living at higher latitudes. Meaning, places where sunlight is weakest. Why? Vitamin D experts believe it has to do with natural vitamin D levels. Adequate vitamin D is protective against cancer, they argue. So avoiding sunlight, which boosts vitamin D levels, actually makes one more susceptible to cancer. Not less.
Nevertheless, the sunlight alarmists have done their work very well. A majority of Americans are vitamin D deficient or insufficient. In short, we may have taken things too far. No one is advocating for a return to the notion of the “healthy” tan. Pursuit of sun exposure as an end in itself is invariably linked to an increased risk of skin cancer later in life, especially if one is fair-skinned and endures a serious burn or two early in life. But it may be time to seek a better balance between living like vampires—which would seem to be the preference of most dermatologists—and living like 18th century Polynesians, cavorting in the sunshine all day wearing grass skirts and little else.
According to a new consensus paper published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, we may be missing out on some important, overlooked, and highly necessary benefits of sunlight exposure. The paper’s authors include a Who’s Who of global vitamin D experts, including Dr. Cedric Garland, of the University of California, San Diego, Michael F. Holick MD, PhD, Boston University Medical Center, and Bruce W. Hollis PhD, Medical University of South Carolina. Check back tomorrow for more on this important health issue.
Carole A. Baggerly, Raphael E. Cuomo, Christine B. French, Cedric F. Garland, Edward D. Gorham, William B. Grant, Robert P. Heaney, Michael F. Holick, Bruce W. Hollis, Sharon L. McDonnell, Mary Pittaway, Paul Seaton, Carol L. Wagner, Alexander Wunsch. Sunlight and Vitamin D: Necessary for Public Health. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2015; 34 (4): 359 DOI: 10.1080/07315724.2015.1039866