I have just returned from a mid-summer holiday in sunny South Africa, where I had almost constant exposure to lots of sunshine for three weeks. As some like to travel to the southern sun during northern winters while others prefer the Alps, where the sunlight is direct and also reflected, I thought it would be a good time to take a close and hard look at some facts.
Sunshine has been getting a great deal of bad press lately. But what is often left out are the healthy aspects of sunshine, particularly from the winter sun. Researchers at the University of Tasmania found that the more sun you had as a child, the less your chances of developing multiple sclerosis (MS) later in life. They compared 136 MS sufferers with 272 randomly selected people of similar ages. Those who had beenout in the sun for more than two or three hours a day between the ages
of 6 and 15 had a significantly lower risk of developing MS. Also, sun exposure in winter appeared to be more important than sun exposure in summer (BMJ, 2003; 327: 316).
Indeed, keeping out of the sun can be bad for your health. Avoiding the sun can make you more vulnerable to a range of cancers, according to Professor Cedric Garland, at the University of California, San Diego. He recommends that you get some sun for 10-15 minutes a day when the weather allows-and without sun-screen-to promote an adequate buildup of vitamin D. This will reduce the risks of developing breast, colon, prostate and other cancers (BMJ, 2003; 327: 1228).
The sunscreen connection
Although the medical establishment continues to support the use of sunscreen, there is a mountain of evidence (growing at an accelerating rate) that sunscreens can promote skin cancer. Professor Johan Moan, of the Norwegian Cancer Institute, found that the yearly incidence of melanoma increased by 350 per cent for men, and 440 per cent for women, during 1957-1984. At this time, there was no change in the ozone layer, but there was an ever more pervasive use of sunscreens (Br J Cancer, 1992; 65: 916-21).
The rise in melanoma is excep-tionally high in Queensland, Austra-lia, which has more cases of melanoma per capita than anywhere else in the world. There, the medical establishment has also long and vigorously promoted sunscreen use-and such a pattern has been repeat-ed worldwide. In fact, the greatest increases in melanoma have been in countries where chemical sunscreens are heavily promoted, and the rises started after sunscreen promotions.
Most chemical sunscreens contain one or more of the most powerful free-radical generators known to man. Activated by ultraviolet (UV) light, the absorbed energy breaks the chemical's double-bonds to produce two free-radical sites. The free radic-als immediately begin looking for a hydrogen atom to make them 'whole' again. They can find this atom among the other ingredients of the sun-screen or on the skin's surface, thereby initiating a chain reaction that can lead to skin cancer.
Years ago, researchers at Harvard Medical School discovered that psoralen, another UV-activated free-radical generator, is an efficient carcinogen (Cancer, 1994; 73: 2759-64). Psoralen, a photosensitizing agent used to enhance skin pigmentation (tanning), is naturally found in plants such as clover, foods such as figs and herbs such as parsley. But psoralen-type photosensitizers are also usedto make fragrances such as oil of bergamot, an aromatic ingredient in sunscreens.
As a rule, it's best to give yourself graded exposure to sunlight. Having spent decades with large daily doses of African sun, I am well aware ofthe benefits as well as the dangers. Marketed as Sylvasun (from Rolfe Laboratories in South Africa), these tablets contain: 5000 IU vitamin A; 4.504 mg beta-carotene; 250 mg calcium carbonate; 30 mg glycine; and 200 IU vitamin D. Every fair-skinned visitor (over 10 years of age) unaccustomed to the sun was given two tablets the night before the first sun exposure and told to continue taking one tablet daily while going through graded exposure until the skin was used to the ever-present sun (taking, on average, about a week). This protocol successfully warded off the otherwise almost inevitable sunburn.
In addition, it pays to take plenty of vitamin E and other antioxidants, such as selenium and vitamin C, before exposure to the immunosup-pressive effects of UV light. Never-theless, always exercise caution and prudence when exposing yourself to strong sunlight for extended periods. In particular, avoid exposure from 10:45 am to 2:45 pm, when UV rays-which cause that damaging sunburn-are especially prevalent.
And don't forget that reflection off snow, metal, water or even sand can double the amount of UV absorption. Exposure to sun with wind (which is deceptively cooling) can cause hair brittleness and other damage, which can be corrected by supplementation with folic acid, pantothenic acid and/or para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), along with vitamin B-complex.
Also, according to the so-called Berlin-Eilath study (Eur J Dermatol, 1996; 6: 200-5), carotenoids (which protect plants from the damaging effects of UV rays) can significantly help any sun-worshippers who have normal skin.
In this small study, 20 healthy young women took either 30 mg of beta-carotene or a placebo every day for 10 weeks, prior to controlled exposure to the sun for two weeks, when a topical sunscreen was also applied to selected sites.
The results clearly showed that beta-carotene significantly increased the number of epidermal Langerhans cells. These cells are an important part of the skin's immune system, and their numbers are markedly diminished by solar radiation. In the women taking the supplements, the cell numbers decreased significantly less than in those taking the placebo. The beta-carotene group also had noticeably less erythema (skin redness) than the placebo group, and their blood beta-carotene levels stayed at normal or above during UV exposure, whereas levels in the placebo group dropped significantly. So, taking moderate doses of beta-carotene before you head off on vacation is a good idea.
In their report Ultraviolet Protection of Natural Mixed Carotenoids in Humans (Institute of Experimental Dermatology, University of Witten-Herdecke, Germany, 1996), Professor Hagen Tronnier and colleagues found that 50 mg/day of natural mixed carotenoids for six weeks, or 25 mg/day for 12 weeks, protected fair-skinned individuals from UV-induced damage. They also found a direct relationship between UV protection and the carotenoid tissue levels that led to adequate sun protection. The study's carotenoid source, the algae Dunaliella salina, includes alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lutein, cryp-toxanthin and zeaxanthin.
About 50 per cent of melanomas begin in a preexisting and previously benign mole. Any change in a mole should prompt professional examina-tion. Near the top of the list of risk factors for skin cancer is occasional exposure to short periods of intense sunlight-often followed by sunburn-such as during the annual holiday in the sun of fair-skinned individuals who normally have low sun exposures, such as office workers. They should certainly be guided by the results of both the Tronnier and Berlin-Eilath studies.
A synthetic version of the preening gland secretions of ducks, combined with Calendula, lavender, rosemary, chamomile, and vitamins A and E, is an excellent topical remedy for sun-damaged skin. Available in pharmacies everywhere as Oil la Sant'e (Labora-toires Lamar, Menard, France) or Bio-Oil (Union-Swiss Laboratories, Cape Town, RSA), it has been tested in seven well-controlled trials (see www. bio-oil.info/en/home). Other oils and greases are to be avoided because of their pore-occluding effects.
If, despite all precautions, you do become sunburned, aloe vera juice (not gel) is soothing and can prevent peeling. It takes the heat and sting out of sunburn, and keeps blistering to a minimum, and usually helps to convert minor sunburn into a tan. The juice should be kept cool, preferably refrigerated, and affected areas should be liberally daubed with it as an apr`es soleil. If aloe is not available, a mixture of two parts cider vinegar to one part olive oil can provide relief, too.
For more serious cases, both homeopaths and phytotherapists suggest Gallium aparine (goosegrass or cleavers) to promote the prompt healing of damaged skin. A wash made from the plant extract, or a decoc-tion of the fresh herb, should be applied very gently twice a day to the sunburnt area, using a natural sponge or a very soft cloth. It may also be applied as a poultice, if appropriate.
One final tip. If you intend to expose yourself to strong sunlight, make sure that you avoid taking photosensitizing drugs such as barbiturates, demeclocycline, pheno-thiazines, griseofulvin, chlorothia-zides and promethazine, or any contact with halogenated salicyl-anilides (weak antiseptics used in soaps and creams). The possibility of porphyria (a rare inherited or acquired blood disorder that can cause photosensitivity and other skin problems) may be considered and, in cases of severe skin-peeling that is accompanied by systemic symptoms, professional help should be sought.
Harald Gaier, a registered naturopath, osteopath, homeopath and herbalist, practises at The Allergy and Nutrition Clinic, 22 Harley Street, London, and the Irish Centre of Integrated Medicine, Co. Kildare ( www.drgaier.com ).
People often remark on how much better they feel once they are in a sunny climate. One reason for this could be that sunlight, in proper doses, canbe beneficial-to some extent-for the following conditions (Kirschmann JD, Dunne LJ. Nutrition Almanac, 3rd edn. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990: 49-52):
- cankers (on lips)
- high cholesterol
- cirrhosis of the liver
- coeliac disease
- cystic fibrosis
- low-grade fever
- bone fracture
- herpes zoster (shingles)
- kwashiorkor (protein deficiency)
- leg cramps
- recurrent rheumatic fever
- vision and focus disorders.