Article for WILMINGTON LIVING MAGAZINE: “Avoidance of Sun Exposure May Be Dangerous”
Submitted By: Dr. R. Todd Shaver
Date of Submission: 9 May 2014
Hooray! After the coldest and darkest winter of my 23 years in Wilmington, it is finally summer. And that means that its time to slather on the 100 SPF sunblock and retreat into the shade, right? Well, maybe not. A new 20-year study of 30,000 Swedish women showed that those who never bathed in the sun were twice as likely to die as those who sunbathed every day.
The study, conducted by Dr. Pelle Lindquist, was published in the Journal of Internal Medicine earlier this year; the research project included women ranging from 25 to 64 years of age. As one might expect, women who got the most sun exposure were more likely to get skin cancer than women who avoided the sun. However, women who got the most sun exposure were less likely to die from any cause, including cancer. Dr. Lindquist said, “The mortality rate was increased two-fold among avoiders of sun exposure as compared to those with the highest sun exposure habits”. The researchers were careful to take into account anything that might skew their results; for instance, study findings were adjusted to account for other factors which can impact health like smoking, body weight, and level of education.
It is thought that Vitamin D deficiency may be the cause of higher mortality amongst sun avoiders. The body produces Vitamin D through exposure to the sun. Deficiency of Vitamin D is associated with increased risk of various cancers, heart disease, metabolic disease of bone (Rickets and Osteomalacia), multiple sclerosis, tuberculosis, diabetes and other disease. The Telegraph reports that incidence of the pediatric metabolic bone disease known as Rickets increased “fourfold in the last 15 years as sunscreen has increased in popularity” (sunscreen products can block beneficial effects of sun exposure). Lower levels of Vitamin D have been associated with more aggressive variants of skin cancer. Even here in sunny southeast North Carolina, it is alarmingly common for me to encounter patients with lab results demonstrating Vitamin D deficiency.
Caution! The results of Dr. Lindquist’s study should not be considered as license for unrestrained sunbathing. Skin cancer can have devastating consequences and over-exposure to radiation from the sun (and from sun-tanning salons) is a main cause of skin cancer. The Lindquist study suggests that we need sun exposure for Vitamin D production but some people will get skin cancer from sun exposure. The problem is that we do not know how to determine what a safe “dose” of sun exposure is. It is known that some kinds of sun exposure are more likely than others to cause cancer; it is widely recognized that sun exposure resulting in burn increases risk.
As with most things, the message here seems to be moderation and common sense. It is important to strike a balance between healthy sun exposure and avoidance of sun burn. It may be helpful to limit sun exposure to shorter duration at the beginning of the season and gradually increase duration over time; duration resulting in burn should always be avoided. Natural agents may also assist in facilitating safer sun exposure; for instance, supplementation with essential fatty acids may be helpful. My family and patients find that supplementation with an essential fatty acid product called Cataplex F helps to reduce the incidence of sunburn when taken a couple of hours before sun exposure.
Extra virgin coconut oil is another natural agent which has been used in efforts to reduce sun risk. “Coconut oil is a proven sunscreen that is still used by millions of people in the tropics as their sole source of protection from sunburn and skin cancer,” according to Bruce Fife, author of Coconut Cures: Preventing and Treating Common Health Problems with Coconut Oil. Consistent with my comments above, Fife advocates “seasoning” any pale skin before spending too much time in the sun. Fife suggests that you rub a thin layer of coconut oil over uncovered skin and remain in the sun for only 15 to 30 minutes at a time. Then, repeat this process in the next few days, staying out a little longer each time. Utilizing this method, Fife maintains that “after about two weeks or so, your skin will be seasoned enough to stay outdoors for hours with a single coating of coconut oil.”
The bottom line is this: there is both important benefit and also some risk associated with sun exposure. Even the very conventional medical website, WebMD acknowledges, “Yes, sunlight causes cancer in some people. But Vitamin D from sunlight may protect us in other ways, so a moderate amount of sun exposure (without burn) might be a chance worth taking.” So, again, use moderation and common sense. Take care not to burn but don’t retreat entirely from sun exposure. I’ll see you at the beach!