Maximizing the Benefits of Sunlight without Wearing More Sunscreen

By Virginia Gurley | Aug 10, 2010

Maximizing the Benefits of Sunlight without Wearing More Sunscreen

Here on the 41st parallel, it’s late August, and the days are noticeably shorter. The daily Ultraviolet Index forecasts I get from the Environmental Protection Agency also reflect the waning of summer as the peak UV levels are starting to decline. 

What this means for maximizing the health benefits of sunlight is that I can spend more hours during the morning and late afternoon in direct sunlight without getting potentially damaging levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

Not to minimize the realities of sunlight induced skin damage, but getting some level of UV radiation, especially UVB (wavelengths 280-340 nm), is critical to the health of our bones, and possibly to the health of our immune system, through the production of vitamin D in the skin. Sunscreen blocks UVB and vitamin D production. Because people of color have more melanin in their skin, and melanin reflects UVB, up to 4 times more UVB is needed to produce health sustaining levels of vitamin D than for white people.

Given the growing number of research studies demonstrating vitamin D receptors in many different parts of the brain, we may soon learn that Vitamin D also affects mood and nervous system health.

One of the paradoxes, or yet to be untangled puzzles, of sunlight, UV radiation and health is that low to moderate intensity UV may actually protect against skin cancer if there is a slow, gradual increase in UV levels.

The mechanisms for this emerging potential protective effect of low-moderate intensity UV are several. First there is the simple UV reflective effect of melanin, which increases skin pigmentation, or tanning, in response to gradual increases in UVB. Second, human skin contains all the component parts needed for melatonin synthesis (yes, the same melatonin that helps regulate sleep and circadian rhythms), and laboratory studies have shown that melatonin can inhibit the development of cancerous tumors. The catch is, production of skin-based melatonin seems to require prior, gradual exposure to bioactive (ie low to moderate) levels of UVB radiation.

The pattern I see across these studies is that low to moderate levels of UV radiation from morning and late afternoon sunlight trigger built in mechanisms that help protect against the damaging effects of higher intensity UV radiation. Sunlight is much more damaging when we expose ourselves to sudden, dramatic increases in exposure - like going from being an office mole to a vacationing beach bum in one day, or like spending an entire weekend day in direct summer sun when all your weekdays are spent indoors.

So, here is my approach to maximizing the health benefits of sunlight:
During summer, I try to get as much early morning and late afternoon sunlight as I can.
I use EPA UV Alerts (sent daily to my email and calculated specifically for my geolocation) to be aware of days when UV intensity is going to be high and when UV starts to trend down. Because I think the balance of research shows that moderate intensity (ie bioactive) UVB is beneficial to health, I’m more liberal about my exposure to mid-range UV, but when the UV Index is forecast to be above 7 or 8, I heed their precautions.

When I’m outside during midday in the summer, I stay in the shade as much as possible.

I avoid prolonged direct midday summer sunlight, especially if I haven’t been able to get much morning or late afternoon sun during the prior few days.

If I’m going on a trip during which I’ll be getting a lot more sun exposure, like if I’m going to climb a 14er or going on a sun and sand vacation, I try to increase my sun exposure where I live for a few days before my departure and gradually increase over my sun exposure over several days when I reach at my destination. This is especially important when traveling to the tropics in winter or early spring (wish I could say I’d done that recently).

During winter I use different strategies to balance the hazards and benefits of UV radiation and sunlight, but I’ll save that list for a later post.

If you take medications or have medical conditions that can affect your sensitivity to sunlight, please talk with your personal healthcare professional before increasing your exposure to sunlight.

Thoughts on Connections between Creativity and Health

By Virginia Gurley | Aug 02, 2010

Thoughts on Connections between Creativity and Health

The desire for health and vitality is pretty universal, yet most of us struggle to adopt lifestyle patterns and habits that create optimal wellness. Whether it’s a matter of eating more fresh foods, getting more exercise, tempering alcohol, balancing stress, getting out of debt, or spending more time with family and friends, wellness and vitality are often within reach “if only I...”

Why do we struggle to make lifestyle changes we know will give us more energy, happiness, peace and possibly greater longevity? Could it be that ‘struggling‘ is the problem? Whether the dialogue is in our head or is disease prevention advice, the focus is often on behavior(s) to be eliminated: lose weight, reduce stress, drink less, reduce blood pressure, eat less junk food, be less sedentary. The dialogue tends to focus on what’s wrong with who we are and how we live.

To be clear, I’m not denying that there is tremendous value in identifying and understanding health hazards, especially those that are within our power to control or modify. But once the hazard is identified, aren’t we more likely to succeed in mastering that hazard if we focus on creating and investing in a positive alternative rather than focusing on eliminating our ‘bad’ behavior?

I think the answer is yes. The elimination mindset toward lifestyle change creates a negative framework which tethers our self-improvement efforts to self-antagonism. If this is the starting point, no wonder we feel bad about the habits we want to change, and no wonder success is often elusive.

The field of narrative medicine provides some intriguing insights about the power of creative investment to improve health and vitality. What is narrative medicine? Well, I’m not an expert, but basically narrative medicine uses self-narrative, storytelling about one’s condition or disease, for therapeutic benefit. One study out of Stanford University found that women with breast cancer who participated in narrative medicine groups had a significantly greater survival rate than women who received standard breast cancer care.

Another interesting example of creativity, narrative and health comes from Alcoholics Anonymous. One consistent part of the therapeutic method seems to be that AA participants tell stories about their experiences with alcoholism and in the process each participant creates a new self-identity that changes the participant’s relationship to alcohol. Their alcoholism is not eliminated, but the drinking behavior is changed.

Storytelling and narrative are essentially creative activities and these examples support the notion that creating new behaviors which are positive investments in self-identity are perhaps a more effective means to achieving health enhancing lifestyle changes. Said another way, energetic effort toward building new habits that enhance self-identity, habits that give greater expression to who we are, is more likely to succeed.

Circadian synchrony, with its focus on the light-dark and seasonal rhythms of the natural world, can be a wonderful muse for bringing creativity and positive investment into the quest for wellness and vitality. Building new habits isn’t easy, but creating a rhythm for the habit by doing it in synchrony with cues from nature creates a consistent time and context for the habit. And treating that time as a creative activity can make the whole endeavor a lot easier and fulfilling.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts related to these ideas.

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