18 July 2013
In an episode of the animated television series, King of the Hill, one of the characters says, “Truth is like sunlight. People used to think it was good for you.” Probably, your great-grandmother would have said that you should always tell the truth and that you should stay healthy by getting outdoors in the sunlight.
For the last 50 years, however, most of us have been splashing on sunscreen, wearing special sunglasses and opaque outerwear in an effort to avoid the sun’s rays. In other words, we have been avoiding unfiltered sunlight like the plague. The plague we were avoiding was skin cancer. However, recent research seems to indicate that there is a cost to our sunless lifestyle. Perhaps, “cost” is the wrong word. A better word is “tradeoff.”
In the UK, and throughout the world, greater numbers of both children and adults are suffering serious Vitamin D deficiencies. Human beings and animals naturally make Vitamin D when solar UV (ultraviolet) rays shine on our exposed skin. When we started hiding from the sun, dietary supplements were supposed to provide the daily nutritional requirement once supplied almost exclusively by the sun’s rays. However, for many, oral supplements do not seem to be providing even the minimum Vitamin D needed to maintain health.
Throughout the organic world, sunlight is closely related to the production of Vitamin D. Exposing organic substances to direct sunlight is the primary method used to produce Vitamin D for human supplements. Milk, when exposed to sunlight, develops an extremely effective form of the vitamin called D3.
Normal levels of Vitamin D do more than prevent a malformation of the bones called rickets. Vitamin D deficiency is linked to hypertension, depression, obesity, dementia, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and, the biggest of them all, heart disease.
University of Edinburgh scientists discovered that our skin, when exposed to sunlight, releases nitric oxide into our blood, which helps lower blood pressure and protect the heart from disease, cardiac arrest, strokes, and attacks. Statistically, our reduced exposure to sunlight may have increased heart disease more than it decreased skin disease. Indeed, rates of skin cancer have continued to increase even as our exposure to potentially carcinogenic UV rays has decreased.
Certainly, there are disadvantages to avoiding sunlight. After all, human beings as a species have lived and thrived for thousands of years with direct exposure to substantial levels of UV rays. So, maybe sunlight is good for us. Or . . . maybe it isn’t.
As we hear the latest discoveries describing the benefits of sunlight, it is important to remember that UV rays are also used to sterilize medical instruments. There are even special UV lamps that are placed in heating and cooling ducts to kill mold, bacteria, and viruses in the air. These must be installed deep within the duct-work to avoid exposing people to the direct light of these lamps. But why does this kind of lamp light pose a danger to people?
What we call sunlight contains a particular range of the UV radiation that seriously damages the DNA of bacteria and viruses. The damage can be so severe that these small organisms cannot successfully reproduce. So they die. That is how UV radiation kills germs. That same range of UV radiation can do the same thing to human skin cells. The light damages the cell’s DNA causing cell death or genetic mutation, which can lead to the development of skin cancer. The potentially carcinogenic effects of UV radiation are both direct and well understood. It would be unwise to ignore this danger.
So, what is the answer? Do we bask in the sun or avoid the sun? Without giving medical advice, as I am not qualified to do so, I’ll venture a guess. Perhaps neither seeking nor avoiding the sun is the answer. Rather, what is needed is moderation. Based on your skin type, and with consideration of your individual risk factors, moderate exposure to sunlight is probably healthy and less risky than is generally thought. So, exposure to a moderate amount of unfiltered sunshine is a good thing. However, if you regularly work or play outdoors, the prolonged exposure is probably less healthy and more risky. So, break out the sunscreen, UV sunglasses, and protective outerwear. With prolonged UV exposure, these precautions just make good sense.
Also, keep in mind that excessive sunlight has unfortunate cosmetic effects causing premature aging of the skin. The word “tan,” to describe the effects of sunlight on human skin, also describes the process used to produce leather goods. Leather shoes look good. Leather faces do not.
On a lighter and stranger note, a woman in Seattle, Navenna Shine, is planning to live on sunshine. She hopes to survive on light without any food other than water and tea. Her “Living on Light Experiment” is based on an Indian regimen practiced by a group called inediates, who live without food. Correction: Inediates “say” they live without food. It is widely reported that modern practitioners of this ancient discipline have almost all been caught cheating. Reportedly, one was even caught in a fast food restaurant. Of course, we should be sympathetic. If, as most suspect, living without food is fatal, sneaking an occasional Happy Meal isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.