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Be safe in the sun

Our bodies need sunlight - but you have to be careful!

We seem to be bombarded with conflicting advice on whether we should sunbathe or not. Cancer Research UK recommends that you stay out of the sun altogether to prevent skin cancer, and I saw the same advice echoed in a Healthspan magazine in 2008. However, this advice has been criticised by some leading scientists and nutritionists.

Vitamin D

The psychological benefits of exposure to sunlight are invigorating and uplifting.

Sunlight stimulates production of serotonin, which makes us feel good and, at the same time, suppresses melatonin so we feel less tired.

Vitamin D from the sun helps us absorb calcium and prevent osteoporosis (porous bones) - simply eating calcium-rich foods without the vitamin is not enough, as the calcium may end up depositing itself in areas other than the bones, which is not good news.

And there’s more. Vitamin D helps to fight infections and stop the spread of cancer cells. Professor William Grant, former NASA scientist, estimates that in the UK, where we get 1,600 deaths a year from melanoma due to excessive sun exposure, we probably get around 25,000 deaths due to insufficient sun exposure.

Regular sun exposure

Dr Des Fernandes recommends a sun exposure of 20 minutes per day, with shorter bursts in strong sunlight. 20 minutes is considered the time it takes to convert vitamin D from sunlight into active vitamin D in our bodies - any further exposure requires protection or the vitamin will be destroyed.

Of course, during the colder months where there is less sun this is more difficult, so it is important during the warmer seasons to ‘top up’ our vitamin D stores. It is said that our bodies can store vitamin D for up to 6 months after moderate exposure to sunlight.

Avoid sunbeds

Topping up on a sunbed is not a good way to supplement your exposure. Sunbeds mostly block out the UVB rays but not the UVA rays, and it is the UVB that makes the vitamin D in your skin. All you’ll get from a sunbed is a tan and wrinkles as a result of the accelerated ageing from UVA.

Suncreams

Suncreams also concentrate on blocking out UVB rays so that you can stay out for longer without burning, but not all creams offer protection from UVA. The jury is still out on how high you should go with the SPF protection on a suncream. with some skin experts saying to go no higher than SPF15. The reason is the amount of chemicals you are piling onto your skin is heavily increased the higher the SPF in the cream. The difference between a cream of SPF15 and one of SPF30 is that you are applying double the amount of chemicals, but only 1% extra protection! (Source IIAA).

Patrick Holford recommends Environ’s RAD16 because it not only protects from UVA and UVB, it also contains beta-carotene (plant source of vitamin A), plus vitamins C and E, which actually double the effectiveness of the SPF to a factor 30.

Supplements

Protect yourself well on the inside as well as the outside. Build up your store of vitamins A and C by eating foods that are rich in these vitamins and other anti-oxidants, and apply skin products that have potent quantities of vitamins A, C and E, as these get destroyed by the sun so need replacing.

If you feel the need to supplement, you can take between 200 and 400 ius of vitamin D per day, but oral supplementation should not be your first port of call. In the presence of sunlight, your body controls the levels of vitamin D it produces but with a supplement it can’t do this, so take too much and you may reach toxic levels.

Enjoy the sun, but in moderation!

So don’t be afraid to go out in the sun. You can still don a hat and good sunglasses to protect your eyes and call it fashion, or insurance against premature ageing!