Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Amazing Truth About the Sun and Your Health

You know, I've often ranted about the
benefits of sun exposure, but some people
just don't seem to listen. So, here's someone
else saying it. It's a well-written piece.
I don't agree with everything he says,
but consider it:

"I have just returned from an island
off the coast of Georgia. The island
is the easternmost piece of land in
the state of Georgia. Luckily, we stayed
just down the street from a great
breakfast dive called "The Breakfast
Club." This is a famous place and
unique in many ways including the
hours. When the chef (can you really
call a short order cook that?) decides
to close he closes. Today he closed at
12:30. Yesterday, he stayed open until
2:00. If you've ever spent much time
on an island in the semi-tropics you'll
find nooks and crannies with people
like this..."living on island time."

As this summer comes to an end and
the sunsets arrive earlier and earlier,
I am reminded about those living either
on an island or near a beach, and I truly
begin to wonder about the sun and
whether it is good for us. While walking
the beach this week, I contemplated
the hype about sunburns and skin cancer.
How much SPF was I supposed to put
on? How often? Should I really stay
completely out of the sun at noon?
When I realize how little of it makes
sense, I know its time do some more
research and then share my thoughts
with you.

If you think about it, the sun and sunlight
HAS TO BE HEALTHY for us. As it
turns out, our bodies actually use the
sunlight to produce chemicals that are
highly critical in our body's function
and our mental well-being. The sun's
ultraviolet radiation, UV for short, comes
in several different wavelengths of light.
UV-B rays, the ones thought to burn,
are the ones that trigger the production
of the major chemical so critical to our
health. The chemical is Vitamin D and
it is critical in our kidney function, bone
formation, blood pressure, immune
system function, etc...

In actuality, it is not truly a vitamin since
it can be made by human skin and thus
need not be added to our diet. In fact,
almost every cell in our body has a
receptor for Vitamin D. More importantly,
this vitamin is chemically a steroid called
cholecalciferol, (aka Vitamin D3). It is
produced in the skin and then converted
to a long-lived molecule in the liver, and
then finally into a short-lived active
molecule 1,25-dihydroxycholecalciferol.
The chemical is fat-soluble and, as such,
could be consumed and stored in the body
in excessive amounts if too much is taken
in supplement form. One of its critical
roles is in controlling the balance between
calcium, phosphorous, and bone "remodeling."
Some people think the reason fractures are
so common in the elderly is due to decreased
sunlight inside nursing homes and the hospital.
I actually agree with this idea.

But back to the issues surrounding the sun.
The hype surrounding sun and skin cancer
is remarkable. Several high profile websites
propagate the hype with phrases such as:

1. "90% of skin cancers are preventable"
2. "skin cancer is at epidemic proportions in the U.S."
3. "well-known behaviors can reduce the risk"

Shamefully, they don't tell you how good
the sun is for you or how harmful the
chemicals are they recommend using to
"prevent cancer." In fact, sunscreen does
not even protect you from the form of
skin cancer called melanoma -- the deadly
skin cancer but also the least common.
(Genetics play a huge role in this form
of cancer and paradoxically the sun may
help prevent it!)

Some of the chemicals in sunscreen include:

1. Titanium dioxide -- absorbed into the skin
--"a potential occupational carcinogen."

2. Octyl methoxycinnamate -- kills mouse
cells in much lower concentrations than
those found in sunscreen.

3. Benzophenone -- used in industrial processes
to initiate chemical reactions -- a prolific
producer of free-radicals

4. 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor (4-MBC)
--causes estrogen-like effects and
developmental effects in animals

5. Adimate-O -- is a nitrosamine, which
are major players in stomach cancers

6. Homosalate -- may cause aspirin
(salicylate) poisoning

7. Oxybenzone -- causes low sperm
counts and liver toxicity in animals

What no one tells you is that most of the
chemicals in sunscreens are as likely if not
more so to do harm to your system than
the sun itself. And the shocking news is
that melanoma (the deadly skin cancer)
is on the rise in the countries that have
been increasing their use of sunscreens.

Even more proof that sun, skin cancer,
and the hype about it is wrong can be
found if you look at states that have the
highest amount of sunlight and the highest
incidence of melanoma (or vice versa) and
guess what? The states' rankings don't
correlate with each other. For example,
Delaware, which is #3 on the highest incidence
list, gets around 100 days of sunshine per
year, whereas the #46 to #50 states (low
incidence of cancer) receive around 100
days per year as well. Clearly the
pathophysiology of skin cancer is poorly

But more importantly I want to tout the
fact that the SUN IS GOOD FOR YOU...
there are many studies showing that
exposure to the sun:

1. decreases the risk of melanoma (a paradox for many)
2. decreases the risk of colon cancer
3. decreases the risk of breast cancer
4. decreases the risk of ovarian cancer
5. decreases the risk of prostate cancer
6. decreases the risk of lymphoma
7. decreases the risk of multiple sclerosis
8. decreases depression in the winter
9. causes a regression of solar keratoses

Now having said all this... I can tell you
that if you have more than 50 moles on
your body OR the moles that you do have
are unusual in shape, size or color then
you are at much greater risk and getting
sun on those moles can trigger their
transformation to cancer. Similarly if
you are lighter skinned, red, or
blonde-haired... then you are at increased
risk (albeit small and the risk decreased
with regular exposure to the sun for short
periods of time).

What do I do?

1. I try to get some sun on my body every
day (my face is usually the most convenient
during working hours).

2. I try to not use sunscreen unless I am
going to be outside for a much longer time
than normally, for example a 3-4 hour
period. In those times, I will use an SPF4
or less to reduce my exposure to these
toxic chemicals. (The number represents
the amount of "supposed protection," the
higher the number the more chemicals)

3. I also am very careful to NOT use sunscreen
that has OMC (Octyl methoxycinnamate) --
I found a while ago that it causes a rash days
after application and also seems to make me
react to the sun with more redness than
other sunscreens.

4. Prior to any winter trip to a sunnier
climate, I will stimulate my melanin producing
cells (the ones that darken to give us a tan)
by getting sunlight on my body (see #7)
several times before going on the trip --
even if this means a few tanning-booth
sessions. (Tanning booths however don't
have the full spectrum of the suns rays,
which could be both good and bad.)

5. I am always careful to reduce the
amount of sun I get during the peak burning
times of 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., especially
if I haven't been out much in the sun. I don't
avoid this time but am just careful. For
example, I usually put my convertible top
up during this time.

6. I try and wear sunglasses and a cap to
reduce the amount of direct light to my
eyes (there is a link to cataracts and other
eye diseases), although I do make sure my
eyes get some of that healthy daytime light
by occasionally not wearing glasses during
daylight hours. The eyes are connected to
a bunch of brain structures related to sleep,
happiness, body rhythms, etc...

7. If it is the middle of winter and I'm feeling
a little blue... in the middle of the day I try
and find a nice warm brick wall, out of the
wind, and just sit and get sunlight on my
face and skin as much as possible...

It's such a simple thing that it doesn't seem
very important. But... I look for simple,
cheap, and safe things to improve the
long-term quality of my life. Sunlight is
one of those powerful healing sources.
Don't feel guilty about the sun.

Here's to our health,

Dr. David Eifrig Jr."


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