Sunshine, Bad or Blessed?

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The weather has gotten colder and the days have gotten shorter. We’re only a couple of weeks away from the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. As a person who prefers the warmer temperatures, it takes focus for me to prevent myself from getting the cold weather blues. I look back on the heat of the summer and smile fondly at the memory of the sun beating down on me, warming me down to my bones.

However, how does exposure to the warming rays of the sun really effect us? For years we’ve been told to avoid the sun and to always have sunscreen slathered on. As a VERY fair skinned person, I’ve taken these warnings to heart. I know that with my skin tone I am in the highest risk category for skin cancer.

The AIHW, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare[1] states:

There are a number of negative side effects that can result from spending too much time in the sun, or indeed in a solarium. These include:

• Deterioration of the skin, including premature ageing and loss of elasticity.
• Rashes, itchiness and dryness.
• Damage to the eyes.
• Sunburn.
• Skin cancer.

According to Wikipedia:  

The first widely used sunscreen was produced by Benjamin Green, an airman and later a pharmacist, in 1944. The product, Red Vet Pet (for red veterinary petrolatum), had limited effectiveness, working as a physical blocker of ultraviolet radiation. It was a disagreeable red, sticky substance similar to petroleum jelly. This product was developed during the height of World War II, when it was likely that the hazards of sun overexposure were becoming apparent to soldiers in the Pacific and to their families at home. Sales of this product boomed when Coppertone acquired the patent and marketed the substance under the Coppertone girl and Bain de Soleil branding in the early 1950s.

While I am sure the dates are accurate, I personally do not remember sunscreens being advocated until well into the early 70’s. I think back to the days of my childhood and can remember my brother and me taking turns peeling the skin off each other’s back after severe sunburns. Being lobster red and uncomfortable is an integral part of my summertime memories of growing up. According to the American Cancer Society, previous sunburns are among the top 5 risk factors for Melanoma, Basal and Squamous cell skin cancer. For those of us raised before sunscreens were popular, this raises concern.

But what about how good it feels to lie in the sun and soak up the warmth and energy from the sun? While I hate to just lie in the sun for hours, there are times when just lying out and allowing my body to re-charge has felt like a little piece of heaven.

The AIHW, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare also states:

Some exposure to sunlight has health benefits, such as through stimulating the production of Vitamin D by the body (this aids the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, which are essential for healthy bones). Vitamin D is available through nutritional sources, but this does not always provide enough. There is also evidence that exposure to sunlight improves mental wellbeing and may be linked to a reduction in the risk of developing multiple sclerosis.

I personally have had times in my life when sun exposure was shown to be medically beneficial. When my babies had jaundice I was told to expose them to sunlight to help their bodies process the excess bilirubin. Diaper rash was also treated by exposing the affected area to a moderate amount of fresh air and sunshine.  

I have suffered from various forms of eczema all my life. Years ago, when I was preparing to go on a cruise, I happened to work in a gym that offered free tanning for employees. I used the tanning beds for less than half the recommended time to prepare my skin for the time I was going to be spending in the sun. While I achieved very little color, I noticed that my eczema was healing. I continued to use tanning beds for a few years and it helped my sensitive skin immensely.

In an article on About.com, dated April 30, 2014, Daniel More, MD[2] stated:

It has long been known that judicious exposure to natural sunlight is helpful for the treatment of atopic dermatitis. In fact, for people with severe atopic dermatitis, some dermatologists recommend treatment with medical-grade ultraviolet light. People with atopic dermatitis, however, may be more prone to sunburn, especially when they are using topical steroids or Elidel/Protopic. Therefore, most people with eczema should be very cautious about too much exposure to the sun.

It isn’t completely clear why sun exposure helps atopic dermatitis, but a recent study suggests that vitamin D may be playing a role. Supplementation with oral vitamin D has been shown to increase the production of cathelicidin in the skin of people with atopic dermatitis. Cathelicidin is a skin protein that protects against skin infections from viruses, bacteria and fungi in healthy skin. People with atopic dermatitis have low amounts of cathelicidin in their skin. This may result in colonization and infection of the skin with bacteria, viruses and fungi, which is known to worsen eczema in people with atopic dermatitis.

So, my question is this: have we demonized the sun? I think as a culture, we have spent a lot of effort discouraging people from sun exposure for their own good. Much like Big Brother in the book 1984 by George Orwell, the medical community has used the media to try to protect people from the damage of over-exposure to the sun. There are dangers and I think everyone needs to be careful about how much time they spend in the sun.

I also think that there are times when nothing feels better than laying in the sun or being outside enjoying the sun. As in anything else we do, moderation is the key.  But, I also agree wholeheartedly with the 1973 John Denver song, “Sunshine on My Shoulders”[3]:

“Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high”

 

What are your thoughts?