Holiday Safety Update: “Too Little Sun Will Kill You”

Written by Kate Goldstone

Fortuitously, just a couple of weeks after we covered the latest news on sun safety in this blog, New Scientist magazine printed an article about the latest research on the effects of sunshine on our bodies. And it looks like sunshine is even more important than anyone thought.

Healthy Sunshine

Healthy Sunshine

Witness the blog title above, quoted directly from the magazine, which is one of the world’s most trusted, respected and widely-read sources of the scientific truth about an enormous range of subjects, from climate change to particle physics and everything in between.

What’s the latest advice on sun exposure?

We thought it was much more than merely ‘important’ to update our readers on the real truth about the sun’s rays. It’s actually vital. If your friends and family are still hell bent on avoiding the sun at all costs, send them a link to this article and do them a big favour.

The latest research on sunshine and human health

Here’s the latest research on sun exposure, and what it means to human health and well-being. If you were just about to smother yourself in factor 50, ram a hat on your head, grab a long sleeved shirt and head outdoors to spend time avoiding exposure to the sun’s rays, think again. According to the eggheads, avoiding sunshine altogether could actually kill you.

Dermatologists unite to recommend we embrace sunshine

The first thing to say is this: a large body of evidence links certain types of over-exposure to the sun’s rays with skin cancer. And getting burned is always a really bad idea. But at the same time there isn’t any evidence that sunlight is bad for you per se, in other words whether it actually shortens your life.

As you’ll see later on in this post, not all skin cancers are equal. While some are deadly, having other types of melanoma means your life expectancy might even increase. It’s counter-intuitive but true. The latest scientific studies and dermatological research reveal something fascinating, bearing in mind all the anti-sunhealth advice we’ve been given: there’s increasing evidence that keeping out of the sun might be killing you, and it’s doing so in unexpected ways.

Vitamin D is just the start of it…

The benefits of sunshine are about a lot more than just Vitamin D. We already know that people with high levels of vitamin D in their bodies are healthier than people with low levels. And we also know vitamin D supplements don’t do the trick. You need the real deal – exposure to actual sunlight – if you want to benefit from lower blood pressure, less risk of diabetes, a reduced risk of strokes and fewer heart attacks.


Children – Healthy Outdoor Play

It looks like vitamin D accounts for some of the benefits of sunshine, but by no means all. So what else is going on?

The magic of nitric oxide

Human skin contains loads of nitrates. The UV radiation in sunshine converts these nitrates into nitric oxide and sends the substance into the circulatory system. Back in 1996, nitric oxide was proven to lower blood pressure, and the discovery won a Nobel Prize. Now we know for sure that sunshine lowers blood pressure a ‘small’ amount by converting nitrates to nitric oxide. And in this case small really is beautiful.

High blood pressure leads to strokes and heart attacks. Lower it just a small amount and the risk decreases significantly. Because stroke and heart disease are the western world’s biggest killers, reducing them will have dramatic health benefits and will also free up an absolute fortune – and a whole lot of medical resources – spent treating them.

The discovery also solves a couple of puzzling problems: now we know why the average blood pressure levels of Brits in winter are higher than in the summer, when we’re exposed to more sunshine. And it suddenly makes sense that people who live nearer the equator, where it’s sunnier, have lower blood pressure than people who live farther north and south.

It means we can all lower our blood pressure without so much as a sniff of a drug. Which has to be a good thing.

Holiday safety – The truth about skin cancer and sunlight

Next, there’s fascinating news about skin cancer. Yes, sun rays cause it. But things aren’t quite that simple. The newly-discovered truth is this:

  • Episodic exposure to the sun – for example only sunbathing twice a year on holiday – puts you at more risk of the deadly melanoma strain of skin cancer than being exposed regularly, for example if you’re a keen gardener outdoors all year round or love hiking
  • The most deadly strains of melanoma are much more common in indoor workers and un-tanned people than they are in outdoor workers and tanned people… which is the direct opposite of what we’ve been led to believe for so many years
  • Non-melanoma skin cancers are much less dangerous and almost never fatal. In fact they could actually be beneficial, which is, again, totally counter-intuitive based on the health advice we’ve been given so far
  • Research proves people who have had a non-melanoma skin cancer are less likely to die early than those who haven’t, with a dramatically reduced risk of heart attacks. Some well-informed dermatologists even congratulate patients with non-melanoma skin cancers, since they’re statistically likely to live longer and healthier lives
playing in the sun

Playing in the sun is healthy!

20 year study – Tanned Swedish women live longer than sun-avoiders

The icing on the sunbathing cake? A study involving 30,000 fair-skinned Swedish women, which began in 1990, revealed the more they had sunbathed, the less likely they were to be dead at the end of the study. Half as likely, in fact, which is dramatic stuff.

Those who had spent their lives avoiding the sun fared less well. And the research’s authors have more to say: they reckon 3% of deaths in Sweden are down to a lack of exposure to the sun.

Another piece of research involved 40,000 Scandanavian women. It found that those who went on the most sun, sea and sand holidays were the least likely to be dead 15 years later when the study ended.

Think about it and it makes sense…

All this might seem extraordinary. We’re so used to being told to stay out of the sun. But when you think logically, it makes sense. Humans wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the sun, nor would any other living creature on our planet. If the sun was that deadly, humans would have developed ways to stay out of it long before we discovered sun creams. Sun avoidance would be embedded deep in human culture… but it isn’t.

sun play

Everyone should spend more time in the sun

As we mentioned last week, it’s gratifying to know that the unique feelings of happiness and the sense of well-being we instinctively feel when we turn our faces to the lovely, hot sun are correct. We were right all along!

The best public health advice?

It looks like regular sunshine might do wonders for your health. If you’re just about to jet off somewhere hot, enjoy those rays! In the words of the author of the article in New Scientist, the dermatologist Richard Weller, “Sun has benefits as well as risks, and public health advice needs to reflect this”.

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