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I don’t use sunscreen. And I don’t use it on my children either. Am I negligent? Or have I misunderstood the information about sunscreens and skin cancer? My children and I have fair skin, red hair and spend long bare-skinned hours outdoors without getting burnt. We eat a diet as high in vitamin D as possible and try and increase our exposure to the sun’s rays as regularly as we can. Why would we want to do this? Because vitamin D is vital for our health.
Vitamin d and health
There are two ways we can obtain vitamin D – from sunlight and food. We know that vitamin D (also known as calciferol) is crucial for bone health and preventing both rickets and osteoporosis. We also know that the vitamin helps to maintain calcium and phosphorous levels in the blood and that it is responsible for bone repair and new growth (essential therefore for children and the elderly). But besides this important role in bone health, vitamin D has a host of other functions. It is being continuously studied for its role in disease prevention. Some research shows that every single cell in the human body has vitamin D receptor sites, leading to the theory that all body cells require vitamin D to function optimally.
Vitamin D also benefits the immune system, from minimising the effects of the common cold to preventing and lessening incidences of multiple sclerosis (there are fewer sufferers amongst populations living nearer to the tropics with greater sun exposure).
Absorbing the sun
Living in the northern hemisphere we don’t get an awful lot of sun, both on a daily basis and annually. This exposure is also hindered by ‘atmospheric conditions’ (or cloud!). Vitamin D deficiency is now thought to be a much ignored contributing factor in various cancers and other chronic diseases, including diabetes, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis and other auto immune conditions. The full function of vitamin D is not yet fully understood, but what information is available shows that there is tremendous potential for improving our health by upping our intake of it.
I spend as much time outdoors as indoors, so I was stumped when a blood serum test showed I was severely vitamin D deficient. Having red hair and fair skin I have heard the cover up and use sunscreen mantra more times than I care to count. Individuals suffering from vitamin D deficiency are often those who cover up, including the elderly and young children. With vitamin D defiency so prevalent and vitamin D so vital to our health, is this the right advice to be giving people?
Sunscreen and sun block
There is a current widespread deficiency of vitamin D in most of the population in the UK – an estimate of 60% at least in most studies I looked at. Interestingly, at least 40% of pregnant mothers in sunny Australia were also found to be deficient in a recent study. Current dermatological advice is for everyone (regardless of ethnicity) to wear a sunscreen and/or sun block all year round! Further reductions in vitamin D uptake can be seen in those with darker skin. It is hard, therefore, to fathom the common sense involved in advising Indian, Pakistani, Africans or those with darker skins living in the UK to use vitamin D-blocking sunscreen, and yet it is commonly prescribed in a broad brush stroke for all.
“Dr Grant, a leading UK researcher in vitamin D and health, reports that avoiding sunlight and shielding the body from it puts you at far greater health risk than exposing yourself”
The anti-sun lobby would have us wearing sunscreen in February whilst doing the school run. Really? I feel the question we need to be asking is do we need protection from the sun? Current and popular mainstream thought is that exposure to UVA and UVB light from the sun causes, or at the very least increases, the risk of skin cancer and to prevent this we need to use a high factor sun cream. But in fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer writes, “Sunscreens were never developed to prevent skin cancer. In fact, there is no evidence to recommend that sunscreens prevent skin cancer in humans.”
Built-in cancer protection
Many experts feel this fear of skin cancer is misplaced. Current and leading research advises that in order to decrease our chances of melanoma a high daily dose of vitamin D3 is recommended to maintain and optimise health. We can get some vitamin D from a diet rich in oily fish, eggs and raw unpasteurised milk and, should we choose to supplement, from cod liver oil, fish oils and a cholefacterol D3 supplement. These are all options for those who are deficient. But sunlight is our finest and most readily assimilated source. Dr Grant, a leading UK researcher in vitamin D and health, reports that avoiding sunlight and shielding the body from it puts you at far greater health risk than exposing yourself. He found that every year 47,000 people die from 16 different types of cancer due to insufficient vitamin D (compared to 8,000 due to melanoma).
Dr R Heaney of the Osteoporosis Research Center points out the body’s cleverly designed mechanism of diverting the genetic UV abnormalities that can occur in the skin with high sun exposure: vitamin D is the body’s built-in skin cancer prevention. Therefore a lack of sun exposure means a lack of vitamin D manufacture and protection against melanoma. An Italian study in 2008 showed an increase in the life expectancy and survival rates of melanoma patients exposed to higher levels of sunlight than those with less or no sun exposure.
Carcinomas can be disfiguring (but treatable) and tend to occur after periods of brief and intense skin burning, such as foreign holidays in younger years. Skin experts agree it appears that ‘individuals with higher continuous sun exposure have lower rates (of cancer) than those exposed intermittently’.
“Rather than thinking of our skin in isolation, it is wiser to look at total body health, especially factoring in diet, when considering our interaction with the sun”
Queensland, Australia has the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Dr. Barry Groves claims, ‘The medical establishment in Queensland has vigorously promoted the use of sunscreens for many years – and today, Queensland has more cases of melanoma per capita than any other place in the world. This is a trend seen worldwide. Incidence rates of melanoma have risen especially steeply since the mid-1970s. The two principal strategies for reduction of risk of melanoma and other skin cancers during this period were sun avoidance and use of chemical sunscreens. Rising trends in the incidence of and mortality from melanoma have continued since the 1970s and 1980s, when sunscreens with high sun protection factors became widely used.’
Food, skin health and sun
So, we stop using sun blocks, screens and sun lotions. Then what? How can we provide a safe internal protection for our skin? We look at diet. In recent decades populations have tended to veer away from a ‘natural’ and ancestral (i.e. locally sourced) diet rich in vitamin D; eggs, oily fish, organ meats and raw unpasteurised dairy produce, towards cheaper and globally produced substitutes such as unfermented soya, various nuts, seeds, grains and legumes. Combined with the higher amounts of vegetable oils used in convenience foods such as canola or sunflower/safflower, and massive stresses placed on the body with the overuse of sugar, our bodies are unable to provide the skin with sun-protective qualities. Rather than thinking of our skin in isolation, it is wiser to look at total body health, especially factoring in diet, when considering our interaction with the sun.
The protective factor in maintaining the body’s ratio of omega 3 to 6 should not be underestimated. We currently consume much higher levels of omega 6 than 3. The use of cheap vegetable and seed oil in convenience foods and the marketing of these oils as healthy have displaced the levels of omega 3’s our bodies crucially need as a protective factor. Tellingly, a recent Australian study found a 40% reduction in melanoma skin cancers in those who ate fish.
Organic virgin coconut oil is my family’s oil of choice. We have eaten this as our primary food oil for the last nine years, alongside butter, olive and hemp oil – all great for keeping the omega ratio in balance. Bruce Fife has written a wonderful book on the ‘miracles’ of coconut oil, including how it helps the immune system cope with stresses and offers protection against all manner of fungal, microbial and bacterial diseases. He notes that the Polynesian people use the virgin oil liberally, both in their daily diets and on their skin, and suffer none of the ravaging effects of extreme, daily, life-long sun exposure, while maintaining superb health and freedom from cancer.
A diet containing nature’s vitamins and antioxidants from brightly coloured vegetables and fruits, raw and cooked, and fatty acids for internal protection whilst in the sun seems most beneficial for those choosing not to use sun screen.
Relishing the sun
Empower your family’s health through diet and lifestyle choices rather than the over use of sun screen and sun block. These have not been proven effective in decreasing skin cancers; in fact the opposite is true of highly chemical varieties. The past few decades have seen the dermatological war against skin cancer failing, despite attempts to convince us to wear sun block 365 days of the year. These creams hinder optimal health by the blocking of vitamin D production.
Avoiding burning in the sun is crucial for skin health. It’s clear that covering up constantly and using suncreams isn’t the answer. A more favourable approach would be to cover up with loose long sleeved clothing and a hat during the hottest parts of the day (11am-2pm) and once your shadow is longer than you are (a good indicator), to abandon the clothes and bare your skin to the sun. Relish the sun’s health giving rays, and use natural sun screens only in emergency midday mid-summer extremes when cover cannot be sought.
Take a vitamin D3 supplement (not D2 which humans do not make and which does not bind well to receptor sites in human tissue. D3 is both more potent and more shelf stable). Use especially if you suffer from an auto immune condition or any other diseases linked to vitamin D deficiency, are dark skinned living in the UK, or at a maintenance dose level to optimise health. I take 8 -10,000 IU’s of D3 every day, all year round. I also give my children 2,000 IU’s per day for two thirds of the year when I feel sunlight here in the UK would not meet our requirements for adequate uptake. It would be wise to have blood tests before starting this protocol and at intervals thereafter to evaluate the success of your dosage.
Consider a fish or krill oil supplement to increase animal based omega fat consumption.
Eliminate sugars, including excess fructose.
Add coconut oil to kid’s smoothies, cook with it, bake with it, and enjoy as a gloriously heaped supplementary daily tablespoon.
Steer your family towards consuming oily fish, free range eggs and abundant vegetables and fruits. Minimise omega 6 intake and maximise protective omega 3.
If this type of diet doesn’t fit in with your current vegan or vegetarian lifestyle then I urge you to do some research into our ice age physiologies, evolutionary diet and sun/skin health.
What to read
The Healing Miracles of Coconut Oil, Bruce Fife tinyurl.com/coconutmiracle
The UV Advantage, M. Holick tinyurl.com/uvadvantage
Primal Body Primal Mind, Nora Gedgaudas tinyurl.com/primalbody
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