If you are like most Southern Californians, you know your sun protection.
For the last 30 years, the anti-sun message has been drilled into us—especial-
ly those who once “laid out” using tanning oils—
and most dermatologists still warn against any unpro- tected sun exposure.
So we dutifully seek out shade, stash sun hats everywhere and slather
ourselves with SPF 50. And while you might think this avoidance is keeping
you healthy, new research is prompting ex- perts to recommend a little
more exposure. One study published in the
Archives of Internal Medicine found that 70% of Caucasians, 90% of Hispanics and 97% of African Americans
in this country have insufficient blood levels of vitamin D, which is
manufactured in the body following sun exposure.
The newest research shows that a dollop of sun ex- posure can improve your
mood, help you sleep and may prevent cancer—even skin cancer. That’s
be- cause vitamin D is manufactured in your skin after it’s exposed
to UVB rays, and optimal levels of vita- min D support the immune system,
regulate blood sugar and blood pressure, and stabilize mood.
At the University of California, San Diego, researchers discovered a link
between low vitamin D levels and the risk of colorectal and breast cancers.
A 2009 study from Leeds University found that higher levels of vitamin
D were linked to improved skin cancer survival rates. Research published in the
Archives of Internal Medicine showed that those with the lowest vitamin D levels had more than double
the risk of dying from heart disease over an eight- year period compared
with those with the highest vi- tamin D levels. And another study published
in the journal
Circulation found an increased risk of heart attacks in those with low vitamin D levels.
“Even though many doctors will tell you you’re in the normal
range if your vitamin D blood level is over 30 ng/ml,” explains
integrative doctor John Douil- lard, DC, of Boulder, Colorado, “you
really want to aim for 50 ng/ml. Unfortunately, most people in this country
hover somewhere between 10 and 30 ng/ ml.” Why? Because we aren’t
getting enough sun.
“Nobody can argue with the scientific evidence proving that excessive
sun exposure is harmful,” says Holly Lucille, ND, a naturopathic
physician in LA. “However, the recent demonization of the sun is
an- other example of how we’re apt to completely over- correct when
we get information about something being detrimental to our health.”
By far, the easier message is “no unprotected sun exposure.”
Moderation is a trickier and more confus- ing one, but many experts now
say five to 10 minutes of unprotected midday sun exposure, three times
a week—no more, no less—is optimal.
Know your skin. The fairer you are, the less un- protected sun exposure
you’ll need, since light skin colors synthesize vitamin D quickly.
On the flip side, the darker your skin tone, the more time you’ll
have to spend outdoors for vitamin D production, accord- ing to Lucille.
“In general, a range of about five min- utes for those with very
fair complexions to about 20 minutes for those with darker skin tones
is adequate unprotected sun exposure,” she says.
There are certain conditions that prohibit sun exposure: if you’ve
had skin cancer, a history of ma- lignant melanoma, a genetic disease
that keeps you out of the sun or if you are taking medication that forbids
exposure. Almost everyone can benefit from vitamin D supplements, and
if you fall in one of these categories you should definitely take them.
While the recommended daily allowance is 600 IUs, most experts recommend
1,000 IUs or higher, so talk to your practitioner about getting your levels
checked and finding the dosage that’s right for you.
Choose your spot. Uncover areas of your body that don’t usually get
sun—like your legs—and keep your face and arms protected.
The larger the exposed area, the less time in the sun you’ll need.
Lucille and an increasing number of other in- tegrative and functional
practitioners are now saying we need to take a more moderate and mindful
approach to the sun. “It is possible—and crucial—to
use the sun as medicine,” says Lucille. “The key is getting
the least dose necessary to get the job done.”