I often joke with my husband that I’m solar powered. The first warm spring day, you’ll find me on my deck swing, face tipped up and arms outstretched, soaking up the sun. All summer, I wear sleeveless tops and shorts or above the knee skirts so I can revel in the feel of the sunlight on as much of my skin as possible. And mid winter calls for a trip to Florida to see relatives…and get a dose of sunshine and warmth to hold me through the rest of the dark, cold weather.
Turns out, I really am solar powered. At least partially. There is a fascinating article (link here) published in 2016 that looks at the risks and benefits of sun exposure. The conclusion? The current sun avoidance/sunscreen advice is creating a major public health problem. Yup. That’s right. We need unprotected exposure to the sun for optimal health.
“Avoidance of sun exposure is a risk factor for death of a similar magnitude as smoking” Lindqvist et al. 2016
It turns out that non burning sun exposure is linked to a reduced risk of just about every major health problem you can think of. Melanoma, breast cancer, and bladder cancer? Reduced. Hypertension, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimers, and dementia? Reduced. Liver disease, macular degeneration, myopia, and obesity? Also reduced. In addition, sunlight affects your brain’s serotonin and endorphin levels. It makes you feel good.
How does sunlight do this? Well, we don’t know exactly. Your skin takes UV radiation and converts it into Vitamin D, a hormone that almost all the cells and organs in your body have receptors for. But tests have shown that Vitamin D alone isn’t the answer – dietary supplementation does not produce the same results. So they say there are (and I quote) “…health outcomes related to sun exposure independent of vitamin D, health outcomes dependent on serum 25(OH)D levels but not vitamin D supplementation, and health outcomes dependent on mediators other than vitamin D…” Basically, the sun does stuff we don’t understand yet, but it’s really, really good for you.
Now, does that mean we should just go willy-nilly unto the beach and turn ourselves lobster red? Of course not. Remember – non burning sun exposure is good. Sunburn is bad. Very bad. Besides being painful, it is linked to an increased risk of melanoma, squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas. So, if your plans involve activities that you know will likely make you burn, slather on the suncreen. But for everyday life? Give it a pass. Your health will thank you.