By Sean Croxton
(Originally printed in Paleo magazine July/Aug 2011 issue)
I heart the sun.
Living in San Diego, there is no shortage of sunshine. It never snows and seldom rains. But despite the lack of true seasonal distinctions, there is still no time like summer.
Summer is when I emerge from my cave (a.k.a. my office) after almost nine months of reading, blogging, and podcasting. It’s when I trade in my office chair for my backpack chair and spend many mid-day hours planted barefoot in the sands of Pacific Beach.
I’m probably the last guy on the shore who needs to work on his tan. But that’s not what I’m there for. I’m there to revel in the healing powers of the sun, to capture its shine and make it mine.
All around me, fellow sand dwellers lather up with their squeeze bottles and spray cans. The higher the SPF, the safer they feel. They have come to enjoy the warmth. Yet, at the same time they curse its source, the cancer-causing, age-accelerating fireball in the sky.
Sun phobia is the rule. And I am the exception.
If only our Paleolithic ancestors could see us now. As seasonal eaters, sleepers, and breeders, they depended upon the sun for survival. They basked in its radiance, accepting its protection from famine and infirmity as a gift from the cosmos. We, on the other hand, protect ourselves from it and disparage its presence. Surely, we’ve lost our way.
Ironically, the very same sun-blocking lotions commonly used for protection against skin cancer typically contain carcinogenic ingredients that cause, well, cancer. But where there is smoke, there is no fire. Or maybe I should say, where there is skin cancer, there is no sun.
Our modern day fears of sunlight are without justification. The scientific evidence proving that moderate sun exposure significantly increases risk of benign skins cancers or even the most deadly skin cancer, melanoma, does not exist. In fact, people who work indoors have higher rates of melanoma than those who work in the sun all day. (1)
Should we lather up before work, too?
What the research actually shows is that lack of sunlight is the root of the most common medical condition in the world, vitamin D deficiency. According to Dr. William Grant, director of the Sunlight, Nutrition, and Health Research Center in San Francisco, the number two most important variable in as many as 15 cancers is vitamin D through sunlight. (2) An increase in sun exposure would result in 185,000 fewer cases of internal cancers (specifically, cancers of the breast, ovaries, colon, prostate, bladder, uterus, esophagus, rectum, and stomach) every year and 30,000 fewer deaths in the United States alone. (1)
And it doesn’t stop there. Sunlight prevents (and treats, in some cases) stroke, depression, insomnia, multiple sclerosis, bone loss, heart disease, dementia, inflammation, high blood pressure, diabetes, and more. It also boosts immunity, safeguards pregnancy, improves fertility, strengthens muscles, and supports fat loss. It is nature’s best medicine, indeed.
Worldwide, there are one billion people with Vitamin D deficiency. Just twenty years ago, one out of every two Americans was deficient. As we have progressively taken all facets of our lives indoors, four out of five are running low today.
A 2009 study published in The Annals of Internal Medicine demonstrated that 70 percent of whites, 90 percent of Hispanics, and 97 percent of blacks have insufficient blood levels. The latter would be me. Those of us with darker skin are born wearing a natural layer sunblock, thus increasing our requirement for sun exposure.
Scientists at the Moores Institute at the University of California at San Diego have raised the possibility that vitamin D deficiency is the root cause of cancer. (1)
Cancer is quite prevalent in my family and I’ll do whatever I need to do to prevent it. So like I said, I heart the sun. Let’s head back to the beach.
The Vitamin D Show begins as I lay shirtless in the sand, exposing as much of my body to the sun’s beaming rays. The sunlight penetrates my skin cells, where it meets vitamin D’s precursor, provitamin D3, which absorbs the ultraviolet B (UVB) portion and creates previtamin D3. Then, with a little help from my body heat, previtamin D3 reconfigures itself to make Vitamin D.
From there, the molecule is released from my skin and into my bloodstream, where it goes through two steps of activation via the liver and kidneys. The active form, 1,25-vitamin D, is actually more of a hormone than a vitamin, as it directly or indirectly influences the expression of over two thousand genes, or about six percent of the human genome. (1)
Getting Your D Through Diet
Applying sunblock with an SPF as low as 8 blocks ninety percent of the skin’s absorption of UVB, thus decreasing vitamin D production by the same percentage. Many people assume they can make up for their lack of sun exposure by consuming foods rich in vitamin D. However, its requirement cannot be met by food alone.
According to Dr. Michael Holick, author of The Vitamin D Solution, “ to eat a sufficient amount of vitamin D (1,000 to 2,000 IU), you’d have to consume three cans of sardines, drink ten to twenty glasses of fortified milk, gulp down ten to twenty bowls of cereal, snack on fifty to a hundred egg yolks, or eat seven ounces of wild salmon for dinner every night.”
Getting a little sunshine would be much easier.
How Much Is Enough?
So the question, of course, is how much sun do you need? Well, that depends on a handful of factors, including age, skin pigmentation, latitude, and weather conditions. A general rule of thumb is to get 10-20 minutes of sunlight 3 times a week between the hours of 10am and 2pm with as much of your body exposed as possible.
There really is no magic number. Listen to your body. If your skin starts to burn after 15 minutes, then top off your sun tank at 10 minutes. If you want to stay exposed beyond that point, then is would be appropriate to apply a non-toxic sunblock like UV Naturals.
Summer is the ultimate time of year to maximize your vitamin D levels. Since it is a fat-soluble vitamin, your fat tissue will store it and release it during the winter months to keep your levels sufficient. If you simply cannot get outdoors during the day, supplementing with 1000-2000 IUs of vitamin D3 is the next best thing.
Taking the Test
As our medical professionals become more informed, Vitamin D testing is becoming more mainstream. Ask your doctor to order up a “serum 25 (OH) D” test and compare your score with the following ranges.
Ideal: 40-60 ng/ml
Insufficient: 21-29 ng/ml
Deficient: <20 ng/ml
If your score is less than ideal, consult with a nutritionally oriented physician or naturopath for specific recommendations for sunlight exposure, supplementation, and/or dietary modifications.
It is well past time for us to see the light about the healing powers of the sun. If we are to follow the dietary wisdom of our ancestors, we must not overlook the most important nutrient, the one that comes from above.
Off to the beach.
1. The Vitamin D Solution by Michael F. Hollick
2. Dr. Mercola’s Inner Circle Interview featuring Dr. William Grant
Sean Croxton is the founder of the incredibly popular Underground Wellness. He started the Underground Wellness YouTube Channel which has grown to be the most subscribed Health and Wellness channel in the world. He also hosts one of the most downloaded health radio shows on the internet, UW Radio.