Sunshine: Friend or foe?

Various health authorities have recommended that we should reduce our exposure to the sun due to the potential risk to skin health:

The World Health Organization suggests limiting exposure to midday rays.
The American Cancer Society recommends covering up with sunscreen and clothing.
The U.S. surgeon general wants us to reduce all exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light.

On the other hand, 32 percent of Americans suffer from vitamin D deficiency that may be caused by inadequate sun exposure. Insufficient sun exposure has been linked to an increased risk for hypertension, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, macular degeneration, and more.

In fear of damaging our skin, are we causing other health issues by avoiding the sun? How can we get healthy sun exposure?

Importance of Vitamin D

Energy from the sun on bare skin causes the body to produce vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for keeping bones healthy by increasing the intestinal absorption of calcium. This is necessary for bone growth and may help prevent bones from becoming thin, brittle, and malformed. Researchers are also finding vitamin D may play a role in the health of the prostate, heart, blood vessels, muscles, and endocrine glands.

Low levels of vitamin D in the blood have been associated with diseases and dysfunction, including cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment in older adults, and asthma in children. While it does not cause disease, low levels of vitamin D may impair critical cellular processes. As a result, body systems may not work at their ideal capacity.

Cod liver oil and fatty fish such as tuna, mackerel, and salmon are among the few food sources that contain vitamin D. Smaller amounts can be found in beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks. For many people, maintaining adequate levels of vitamin D from food sources alone is not easy. A combination of nutritional supplements, fortified foods, and sun exposure may be necessary to reach sufficient levels of vitamin D.

Benefits of Sun Exposure

In the early 20th century, sunlight therapy was used to treat tuberculosis, rickets, and a number of other ailments. Today, thanks to modern science, we know there are many ways the sun improves our health and well-being.

In response to ultraviolet B (UVB) exposure, our skin produces endorphins that may stimulate an overall sense of well-being, strengthen the immune system, relieve pain, promote relaxation, and even assist in the healing of wounds. Sunlight may also play a role in controlling circadian rhythm and seasonal affective disorder.

In addition, sun exposure may actually protect the skin from damage. When bare skin is exposed to the sun, two physiological responses occur: production of melanin that causes increased skin pigmentation and thickening of the outermost layer of the epidermis, also known as cornification. The result is thicker, darker skin that may protect against the sun’s deep-penetrating ultraviolet A (UVA) rays while maintaining the benefits of UVB rays.

Healthy Sun Exposure

To help maintain adequate levels of vitamin D, nonburning sun exposure is recommended. The amount of time needed for healthy sun exposure and the production of vitamin D is difficult to determine because it depends on many factors, including:

Time of day: Skin produces more vitamin D if exposed midday.
Skin color: Pale skin creates vitamin D at a faster rate than dark skin. It may take only 15 minutes for a fair-skinned person to produce vitamin D. For a dark-skinned person, it could take a couple of hours or more.
Exposed skin: More bared skin equates to more vitamin D production.
Age: As we age, it becomes harder to produce vitamin D.
Location and season: The farther you live from the equator, the less UVB light there is, especially in winter. For example, one can produce vitamin D almost year-round in Florida. But in New York, the sun won’t help much in November through March.

As you can see, healthy sun exposure is very individualized. In general, sufficient vitamin D synthesis could be achieved by spending 5-30 minutes in the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. at least twice a week without sunscreen.

According to the Vitamin D Council, the best rule of thumb is to stay in the sun around half the time it takes for your skin to begin to burn. Once you achieve the appropriate limit, cover up or seek shade to avoid skin damage. Keep these guidelines in mind, and you can enjoy the warming rays of the sun and all the related health benefits.

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