Here’s a recent question I got from a reader about sun exposure while eating a healthy diet. Perhaps some of you can relate. Leslie asks:
Since going grain free, sugar free, etc. and incorporating more healthy fats and vegetables about 6 months ago, I’ve noticed I have a higher tolerance to the sun. I not only don’t burn, but I’m able to stay out in the sun longer without turning the tiniest bit pink and I tan more easily than I ever have before (which is saying something since I have red hair!). I was wondering if there is any science to this or if it is just in my head? Any thoughts?
This was one of the most surprising things for me, since I too, was typically fair skinned and did not tan well. In fact, until the last couple of years, I couldn’t remember a time that I had a real tan or had gone an entire summer without burning.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that a real food diet can offer some protection against sunburn, but is there any evidence to back it up?
Sunscreen, Sunburn and Skin Cancer:
In the last several decades, the push to use sunscreen and limit sun exposure has gotten stronger and stronger. It is now possible to find SPF 70 or higher, and thanks to massive campaigns, most people are at least mildly aware of the “dangers” of sun exposure.
Despite the push for more awareness about sun exposure, and the advice to use sunscreen whenever we go outside, incidence of skin cancer, especially melanoma, is rising dramatically.
Perhaps the problem isn’t lack of sunscreen, or even sun exposure at all, but a deeper cause? (More on this in a minute).
Of course, this is not how the mainstream medical community is reacting at all. As evidenced by the recommendation to continue eating low fat despite the dismal failure of the lipid hypothesis over the last few decades, the conventional wisdom seems to be that if something doesn’t work, more of the same thing will definitely work.
Rather than consider that perhaps there is another cause to the rising rates of skin (and practically every other) cancer, the mainstream advice is: avoid the sun more, use more sunscreen, and should you be worried about your vitamin D levels, take a supplement.
Does Sunscreen Stop Skin Cancer?
The general idea is that since sunscreen prevents sunburn, it also logically prevents skin cancer. While there might be some logic to this, there is not actually any science to back it up.
In fact, a study in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics reports that:
Sunscreens protect against sunburn, but there is no evidence that they protect against basal cell carcinoma or melanoma. Problems lie in the behavior of individuals who use sunscreens to stay out longer in the sun than they otherwise would. Vitamin D inhibition is, at this stage, unlikely due to insufficient use by individuals. Safety of sunscreens is a concern, and sunscreen companies have emotionally and inaccurately promoted the use of sunscreens.
While it is certainly logical that avoiding sunburn is a good idea, the question of if sunscreen is the best way to do so is certainly up for debate. We do know that sunscreen inhibits Vitamin D production, especially when used regularly and that Vitamin D deficiency has been strongly linked to a variety of cancers, including the most dangerous types of breast and colon cancer.
So as a society, we avoid the sun, which helps our bodies naturally produce Vitamin D, and put chemical laden lotions on instead in hopes of reducing one type of cancer (skin cancer). In the process, we might make ourselves vitamin D deficient and increase our chance of a host of other cancers, including some of the most fatal cancers.
The Role of Diet
In the quest for an easy (and profitable) solution to skin cancer, mainstream medicine and media have recommended sunscreen and limiting sun exposure while greatly ignoring any potential role diet can play in skin cancer formation or prevention.
Perhaps, since skin cancer rates are rising despite the highest rates of sunscreen use in history, it is time to look at alternative explanations.
In the same past few decades that skin cancer (and other cancer) rates have risen, some dietary factors have also changed, including: increased use of Omega-6 vegetable oils, higher consumption of processed foods, more chemical additives in foods, reduced consumption of saturated fats, increased grain consumption, etc.
Omega-6 Vegetable Oil Consumption
Omega-6 oils like canola, cottonseed, vegetable, soybean, etc., are a very new addition to our diets and there is no biological need to consume oils in this state. There is also evidence that when these oils are consumed, they can be used in place of the saturated and monounsaturated fats the body needs for skin formation and actually lead to skin cancer.
In fact, some studies have shown that the high linoleic acid content in vegetable oils increases the instance of skin cancer and other cancers, and lowers the body’s ability to fight cancer. As the article explains:
Thus, the amount of linoleic acid in the diet as well as the balance between omega-6 and omega-3 determine the susceptibility of the skin to damage from UV rays. This is a very straightforward explanation for the beautiful skin of people eating traditional fats like butter and coconut oil. It’s also a straightforward explanation for the poor skin and sharply rising melanoma incidence of Western nations (source). Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer.
While vegetable oil consumption has risen, saturated fat and Omega-3 fat consumption has dropped.
Saturated Fat and Omega-3 Fat Consumption
As Omega-6 oil consumption has risen, consumption of saturated fats and Omega-3 fats has declined. We’ve seen how well that’s worked out for us, but it turns out that it could have a pretty big impact on skin health, too.
The body needs healthy fats, including saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and Omega-3 fats, to regenerate skin tissue, and these fats are the preferred building blocks in the body. If the body doesn’t get these fats (and many people don’t these days), it will use whatever it has available, including Omega-6 fats, which are not the preferred fat for building skin and collagen and can cause mutation (cancer).
Increased Consumption of Processed Foods
With the recommendation to limit saturated fats came the advice to eat “heart healthy whole grains” and this has been the standard dietary recommendation for the last few decades. Unfortunately, for many people, grains can cause inflammation in the body and lead to a host of problems.
Combine this with the plethora of chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis from food, air, cosmetics and even *gasp* sunscreen, and there are many chances for skin mutation to occur!
How A Good Diet Can Help Avoid Sunburn
Just as unhealthy food has a negative effect on skin and overall health, a real food diet can offer protection from various healthy problems, including sun related ones. Fortunately, the diet and lifestyle factors that help with skin health are probably already things you are doing, including:
1. Eating Enough Good Fats
To make sure the body has the proper building blocks for healthy skin and to reduce inflammation, it is important to get enough healthy saturated, monounsaturated and Omega-3 fats while avoiding polyunsaturated fatty acids and high Omega-6 vegetable oils.
2. Getting Enough Antioxidants
If you’re avoiding grains and Omega-6 oils and eating proteins, fats and vegetables instead, you are probably great in the antioxidant department. Even real food “treats” like berries and dark chocolate are packed with antioxidants.
Antioxidants help reduce inflammation and free radicals (which you also won’t have as much of if you’re not eating grains, sugars, and omega-6 oils). Research has shown a strong protective effect of antioxidants against sunburn and skin damage (and perhaps this is why antioxidant packed Astaxanthin is so effective at helping avoid sunburn).
3. Optimizing Vitamin D
This is a logical step in protecting the skin and many other parts of the body. Melanin, the dark pigment that we get when we tan, is produced to shield the skin from further UV exposure by providing a type of barrier. This is why dark skinned people need more sun that those with fair skin to get the same amount of Vitamin D. When the body has enough Vitamin D, it will start producing Melanin to keep from getting too much. There is evidence that optimizing Vitamin D levels through sun exposure and even through supplementation will help the body produce melanin faster and retain it longer.
4. Getting Sun Exposure Gradually
While the sun is very beneficial because it helps the body produce Vitamin D, sunburn is certainly not beneficial. The easiest way to avoid sunburn naturally is to increase sun exposure gradually, while eating a healthy diet. For most people, 15-30 minutes is enough at first, though many can work up to several hours without a problem.
If your activity level requires you to be out for longer than this, wear protective clothing or find some shade!
5. Avoiding Chemicals and Using Natural Options
Since your body needs Vitamin D and there is no conclusive evidence that sunscreen protects against skin cancer, it is best to avoid using sunscreen, especially the chemical laden varieties.
6. Taking Some Supporting Supplements
About this time of year, I also start taking a specific regimen of supplements that help reduce inflammation and improve sun tolerance. The supplements I take are:
- Vitamin D3 (I take about 5,000 IU/day)- Emerging evidence shows that optimizing blood levels of Vitamin D can have a protective effect against sunburn and skin cancer.
- Vitamin C (I take about 2,000 mg/day)- A potent anti0inflammatory, and it is good for the immune system too.
- Coconut oil melted and blended in a cup of herbal tea each day- the Medium Chain Fatty Acids and saturated fat are easily utilized by the body for new skin formation and are protective against burning.
- Cod Liver Oil (also great for remineralizing teeth)-My favorite supplement for sun protection. I take double doses during the summer and the kids take it too. Since adding this and the coconut oil daily, none of us have burned. It’s also great for digestive and oral health.
- Astaxanthin– A highly potent antioxidant which research shows acts as an internal sunscreen. It’s also supposedly an anti-aging supplement. I don’t give this one to the kids though.
What do you do about sun protection? Do you tan better by eating real food? Let me know below!