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Sunbathing and tanning often get a bad rap due to their associations with skin cancer. But mounting evidence shows healthy sun exposure isn’t only safe but necessary. Here’s how to safely get the health benefits of sunbathing.
Staying in the sun until we’re toasty and red can increase skin cancer risk. But an anti-inflammatory diet along with moderate sun exposure can actually lower cancer risk.
Sunshine and vitamin D help with much more than cancer avoidance. It turns out that sunbathing is helpful for just about every system of the body, and getting some exposure in the AM helps set a good healthy rhythm each day. You no longer need to feel guilty about your love of sunbathing!
Sunshine for Happy Hormones
Getting daily morning sunlight is crucial for setting your circadian (day-night) rhythm. The sun is a zeitgeber,” literally, a “time-giver” that helps signal to the body when it’s time to be active and when it’s time to rest. When we get sunlight early in the day, evening melatonin production begins earlier. This helps us fall asleep more easily at night.
This day-night cycle helps regulate important processes in the body. Hormones like cortisol increase in the morning and melatonin increase at night. When that rhythm gets out of sync, it can be challenging to fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up rested. Lack of sunlight or exposure to blue light in the evening are some ways these rhythms get disrupted.
The key is to get some sun into your eyes and onto your skin as early in the day as possible. If you can, enjoy your morning coffee or tea in the sunshine! It’s also important to avoid blue and white spectrum lights after sunset.
Vitamin D for Prevention
Sunshine isn’t just important for your daily rhythm. It’s also necessary for disease prevention. In many cases, we go to such great lengths to avoid the sun that it’s detrimental to our health. One Norwegian study found the benefits of sun exposure far surpassed any risk. They estimated that while excessive exposure might cause 200-300 deaths annually, there would likely be 3,000 fewer cancer deaths each year.
It’s interesting to note that people with more melanin pigment in their skin are at a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency.
Other studies have found links between low vitamin D and the following conditions:
Depression – Low vitamin D status is associated with symptoms of depression.
Parkinson’s Disease– Vitamin D deficiency is common in those diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
Bone Disease – Low vitamin D can cause rickets in children and osteomalacia or osteoporosis in adults.
Blood Clots – Vitamin D serves as an anticoagulant.
Diabetes – Diabetes is associated with low vitamin D levels.
- Heart Disease – Cardiovascular disease is associated with low vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency also increases the risk of sudden cardiac death.
- High Blood Pressure – High blood pressure is associated with low vitamin D levels, and taking vitamin D supplements may help lower it.
- Psoriasis – Vitamin D is significantly lower in people with psoriasis.
- IBD (Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis) – Vitamin D lowers inflammation. Those diagnosed with IBD had significantly lower vitamin D levels compared to the general population.
An Essential Vitamin
If you search for health conditions and their vitamin D connection, you might be surprised how long your list becomes! Vitamin D is an essential compound for human health. We simply cannot be healthy without it.
It makes sense because humans have always gotten a lot of sun exposure throughout the warmer months — or all year long, depending on where you live. Our modern lifestyle has kept us from getting that normal amount of sun exposure.
Having Fun in the Sun Isn’t Just for Kids
In the summertime, getting sun seems to happen more naturally –especially if you have a family. Besides the time spent out in the garden, there are family vacations, beach days, trips to the pool, county fairs, and plenty of other outdoor events. While it’s great to bring the kids to the beach or pool to get some sun, don’t forget to get some sunshine yourself!
Many times, we mamas will sit back under the shade and read a book while our kids are soaking up their vitamin D. Mamas need vitamin D, too! A Swedish study even found that regular sun exposure helped women live longer. Another study found that frequent sun exposure could cut breast cancer risk in half!
Vitamin D for Fertility
Optimizing vitamin D through sun exposure can also improve fertility. Low vitamin D levels increase the risk of infertility and poor pregnancy outcomes. Research shows vitamin D levels impact PCOS and endometriosis, two major causes of infertility in women.
Pregnancy and Nursing
Vitamin D is essential during pregnancy and nursing too. Adequate blood levels of vitamin D can lower the risk of premature labor and overall complications. According to a 2020 meta-analysis, low vitamin D can put a mom at higher risk of gestational diabetes. This can also lead to bone or other problems for the baby.
Another study found pregnant women should get more sun to increase health markers for themselves and their babies. Researchers found that 4000 IU per day during pregnancy gave both mom and baby healthy Vitamin D levels.
Risks for Children
Low vitamin D during pregnancy might cause an increased risk of complications.
These risks include C-sections, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and vaginal infections in the mother. The child has a higher risk of autism, mental disorders, infection, low birth weight, and heart/lung/brain problems, among others.
Many kids aren’t even getting a quarter of that on a good day. Often when they do, it comes from the less useable vitamin D2. On this note, I recommend testing your vitamin D levels, especially if you’re pregnant!
Vitamin D and Oral Health
I’ve talked about this in depth before, but I’m convinced that the combination of low vitamin D, low fat-soluble vitamins and beneficial fats, and high phytic acid levels are partially to blame for the rampant oral health problems we see today.
We know Vitamin D is so important during pregnancy. So it’s logical that if mom has low vitamin D, her baby could have trouble forming healthy bones and teeth.
In my experience, optimizing my vitamin D levels and removing phytic acid from my diet made a big difference in my oral health.
The Right Kind of Vitamin D
While I get as much vitamin D from the sun as I can, I also supplement with it. The key here is to take it with vitamin K2 and magnesium. Since vitamin D3 increases calcium absorption, calcium can then end up in areas where we don’t want it. The arteries and soft tissues are a few examples. Vitamin K2 is like the Uber driver for calcium, taking it to our bones and teeth.
Some people have a hard time getting good blood vitamin D levels, even with taking supplements consistently. The solution? Getting enough magnesium. Magnesium is the opposing mineral to calcium and our bodies need it for thousands of biochemical reactions.
Sunlight Increases Happiness
Sunlight exposure helps the body make serotonin, the happiness neurotransmitter. Serotonin is a precursor to the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. It’s usually produced during the daytime though.
Increasing serotonin is another way sunbathing fights depression and improves mood.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can cause low serotonin during the day. This seasonal depression can also delay melatonin production. Moderately high serotonin levels result in a happier state and a calm, focused outlook.
No wonder sunbathing makes you feel great!
Should We Use Sunscreen?
I rarely wear SPF sunscreen, and only if I am going to be out for an extended period before I build up my tolerance for the year. When I do, I only use homemade sunscreen bars or other natural options. I also like using this homemade sandalwood tanning oil. It uses a variety of plant oils that are naturally sun-protective.
Isn’t this dangerous? Not in my opinion. Even with a risk of skin cancer in my family, I don’t worry about regular daily sun exposure without sunscreen lotion. Here’s why:
From my research and experience, I’ve found that the foods I consume directly affect how my skin reacts to the sun. Some foods (like grains and vegetable oils) easily lead to burning. Others (like astaxanthin and coconut oil) let me stay out for hours.
Skin cancer rates are up and so is the amount of sunscreen we’re using. People are spending less time in the sun while the cancer rate rises.
Diet can play a key role here. But it’s also important to consider most sunscreens contain toxic chemicals. Some have a toxic form of vitamin A (retinol) that’s been linked to skin cancer.
Protect From the Inside Out
That said, I’m comfortable sunbathing and getting sun exposure. I take steps to protect my skin from the inside out. I eat an anti-inflammatory, high antioxidant, and beneficial fat diet for sun protection. Supplements also increase my sun tolerance and help my body benefit from sun exposure.
My basic routine included a grain-free, sugar-free, high-vegetable, and rich-in-healthy-fats diet. I also include the following supplements.
- Vitamin D3 (I take about 5,000 IU/day when my levels are low) – Emerging evidence shows optimal vitamin D blood levels can protect against sunburn and skin cancer. Take D3 with K2 and magnesium.
- Vitamin C (I take about 2,000 mg/day) – A potent anti-inflammatory, and it’s good for the immune system, too.
- Coconut oil -. I use 1/4 cup melted coconut oil in herbal tea per day. Our bodies use MCFAs and saturated fat for healthy skin and to help protect against burning.
- Fish oil – Omega-3 oils are naturally anti-inflammatory and help protect the skin. I prefer to get mine from whole food sources like sardines and salmon.
- Astaxanthin – A highly potent antioxidant that acts as an internal sunscreen. It’s also supposedly an anti-aging supplement. I don’t give this one to the kids though.
What About Wrinkles?
UV exposure from UVA rays and UVB rays is thought to cause skin damage, like wrinkles, skin aging, and melanoma. While tanning beds aren’t a healthy way to suntan, healthy sun exposure is good for the skin. As long as we’re getting proper nutrition, skin is much less likely to get sun damage.
Your skin type also plays a role in sunbathing. People with more melanin are less likely to burn from UV rays and sun rays. As always, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing though. Be sure to avoid damaging sunburns from overexposure.
Final Thoughts on Sunbathing
From the research I’ve seen, Vitamin D deficiency could be one of the most dangerous silent epidemics of our time. Yet much of the anti-sun propaganda continues. Personally, I’m off to sunbathe and boost my vitamin D levels.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Tim Jackson. He is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Orthopedic Rehabilitation, and a Functional Medicine provider. He holds a B.S. Degree in Health Science and Chemistry from Wake Forest University. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
What’s your take? Do you ever wear sunscreen or just soak it all in? Share below!