Safely Soaking in the Summer Sun

I am so lucky to live in California, and to live by the beach, but I’ve been needing to be more careful of late, since taking up beach volleyball.  My sun exposure just went through the roof, and I’ve been getting creative about how to have fun in the sun and still maintain the health of my skin!  I am a bit of a light and sun nut (we installed 13 skylights into our modestly sized home) and I spent much of my wild childhood summers wandering brown and barefooted through the fields and woods near our home.  The sun is essential to life (not to mention one’s good mood), but also a mixed bag for we “mostly water” humans.  Half a day of exposure in the desert could suck the water from your non-cactus skin and leave you a raisin-like version of your former self.  And even shorter exposures can burn you a lovely shade of lobster-pink or red-brown, depending on your skin color.

 

The parade of sun-damaged, splotched and cancer-ridden patients in my dermatology rotation in medical school convinced me that sunscreen (especially for fair-skinned folks who are supposed to be living in Northern Europe, not California) is as essential to good health as exercise and good eating.  I’ve been somewhat fanatically using sunscreen across the globe ever since—the free days of traveling in my sun-bronzed youthful skin forgotten.  Sun as enemy to be protected against, not welcome friend.

 

We know that sun exposure helps improve one’s mood (how anyone lives in Seattle without “off-ing” themselves, I have never understood).  And sunlight helps maintain the daily rhythm of melatonin release from the pineal gland, which assists in sleep.  One of the recommendations for folks changing time zones or doing shift work is to get sun exposure during the day to help your internal clock “re-set”. 

 

We have known for years that vitamin D is created in the skin through interaction with the sun, but given our fabulous diet, this was considered a relatively unimportant phenomenon.  Imagine the surprise of the entire medical community several years ago when extremely low levels of vitamin D were found in multiple age groups throughout the U.S. and much of the rest of the world.  This is important because recent studies show that low vitamin D levels are correlated with heart disease, autoimmune disease, osteoporosis, increased body pain, reduced cognitive function, an increased risk of multiple types of cancer and even death.  This is big news!!  We NEED vitamin D for good health. 

 

I would strongly suggest that you consider having your vitamin D levels checked by your doctor as I have continually been surprised at how many healthy folks have low vitamin D levels.  Taking vitamin D is simple, and I usually recommend 1000-2000 IU of vitamin D3 daily to my patients.  And it’s worth mentioning that to get to an ideal range of 40, many folks need a lot more than that.  But if you’re taking a higher dose (say 5000 IU daily) it is essential to have your blood level checked as too high a vitamin D (above 65, for example), can actually be bad for your health, and as a fat-soluble vitamin, vitamin D levels simply accumulate in your body and can increase over time.

 

But what about our natural source of vitamin D, the sun?  The health data on the benefits of vitamin D are impressive enough that several professional medical associations recommend 15-20 minutes of unprotected sun exposure daily.  Sooooo, what does that mean for you (or for me on the volleyball court?).  In general, wear sunscreen or protective clothing when you are going to have prolonged exposure to the sun, particularly during the strong sun hours of 10 am to 4 pm.  And protective clothing including a great sun hat, is even better than wearing sunscreen.  Sunscreen can be a controversial issue, with many of the mainstream sunscreens having potentially toxic effects—for you and for our fragile ocean eco-systems, if you are lucky enough to be enjoying the sun at the beach.  The safest sunscreens have zinc oxide, and not the “micronized” type (the safety of micronized technology is still unclear).  For guidance in sunscreen choice, see the excellent “EWG 2010 Sunscreen Guide” at http://www.ewg.org/2010sunscreen.  My family’s current favorite top-rated sunscreens are Burn-Out and MyChelle Sunscreen Clear spray (for ease of application).  The costs, unfortunately can be prohibitive, so remember that a light long-sleeved shirt or cotton leggings actually do a better job!

 

AND, if you haven’t had skin cancer or a strong family history of skin cancer, you should enjoy the sun unprotected for 15-20 minutes daily!  Ha ha!  A return to my wild romping in the sun childhood!  Well…..almost.  Enjoy the healing power of the sun this summer, and don’t forget your hat!

Rachel Abrams