Sunbathing : the Benefits are more than Skin Deep
by Richard Hobday • Great Britain
Sunbathing is one of life’s great pleasures. For some of us, exposing our skin to the gentle warmth of the sun’s rays in the spring and early summer is, in a way a form of sun-worship.
We recognize that our bodies need direct contact with the life-giving rays of the sun as we emerge from the darkness of winter. The sun seems to strengthen us and lift our spirits. But why should this be so?
For most of human history the sun has been revered as a source of light, life and health. The ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun's healing powers and made good use of them, as did the Greeks and Romans. The citizens of Rome considered sun exposure to be so important they had right-to-sunlight legislation. In 1903, just over one hundred years ago, the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Niels Finsen, a Danish doctor who discovered that the sun's rays could cure tuberculosis. Finsen put sunlight therapy at the forefront of medicine after centuries of neglect. In the years that followed, hospitals and sanatoria were built so patients with tuberculosis, rickets and war wounds could be exposed to the sun under medical supervision. Until about 50 years ago, health experts promoted sunbathing.
During the 1980s there was a complete reversal in medical thinking on the subject, and since then we have been warned to stay out of the sun. Of course, solar radiation can trigger skin cancer in susceptible individuals. But, paradoxically, the sun's ultraviolet rays are vital to our health. Sunlight is the major source of vitamin D in the body. It's our natural source of the “sunshine vitamin” as there is little of it in the normal diet. Vitamin D has long been known to be essential for strong bones and teeth, but recent research shows that it also plays a pivotal role in maintaining a healthy immune system. Every organ and every cell in the human body needs vitamin D to function properly. And just at the time that scientists are beginning to work out how vital adequate levels of vitamin D are to our health, others are starting to recognize just how common vitamin D deficiency really is. According to some estimates, over half the adult population in the USA may have less than optimal amounts of vitamin D in their blood. And low levels of vitamin D are now being linked to some very common and potentially fatal conditions such as heart disease, stroke, depression, obesity, cancer of the breast, colon, prostate and pancreas, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, tuberculosis, hip fractures, and osteoporosis.
At northerly latitudes, it is impossible to synthesize vitamin D in the skin from late fall until spring because the sun is not strong enough. So for anyone who has not been outdoors in the summer and built up their reserves of vitamin D, the chances are they will have low levels of it by the time winter sets in. And by the time spring arrives they will have even less of it. Those of us who want to maintain healthy levels of vitamin D have two choices: supplements or ultraviolet radiation. The perceived wisdom is that taking vitamin D supplements is inherently safer than synthesizing vitamin D in the skin. But there are risks to both. Taken orally, vitamin D can be toxic at high levels; and the human body makes better use of vitamin D derived from the sun than vitamin D in the diet.
Sunbathing for health is very, very different from sunbathing simply to get a tan. The doctors who used sunlight to treat tuberculosis, rickets and wounds at the beginning of the last century left us a number of clues as what to do and not to do in the sun. But before we briefly look at them, exposing anyone who is unwell to sunlight can be highly dangerous and should not be attempted by anyone who is not qualified to do so. The patients who underwent this treatment were in poor health and extremely sensitive to sunlight in a way that few people sunbathing today are. Nevertheless, for safe sunbathing the same basic principles apply. Exposure was very gradual, and only increased by about five minutes each day, starting with the feet and slowly working up the body. Sunlight early in the day had the greatest therapeutic value and sunbathing in cool conditions, at temperatures at or below 64º F, was considered particularly beneficial for patients with tuberculosis. This seems to have strengthened their immune systems and stimulated the self-healing powers of the body. Close attention was paid to the way each patient responded to the sun; and at the first sign of any reddening of the skin the treatment stopped. Nourishing meals were also part of the treatment. The proportion of fat in our diets, together with the mineral and vitamin content can influence the way our skin reacts to sunlight.
Unfortunately, there's no rigid formula or simple set of instructions on the amount of sun needed to stay healthy because each of us responds differently to it depending on our skin type, age, medical history, diet and so on. You don't have to get a tan to produce vitamin D, but if you do decide to tan, pay very close attention to the way your skin reacts to the sun. Work out your tolerance to sunlight before exposing the more delicate parts of your body and make sure you are not taking any medicines that increase your sensitivity to sunlight. Always wear a hat and, above all, do not burn.
The human race evolved under the sun, and the sun’s healing powers have been worshipped for thousands of years. The sun-god Apollo was the Greek god of medicine and there are two inscriptions from his temple at Delphi that give, perhaps, the best advice on sunbathing to be found anywhere: “All things in moderation…Know thyself.”
Richard Hobday is the author of The Healing Sun: Sunlight and Health in the 21st Century, Findhorn Press 2000, and The Light Revolution: Health, Architecture and the Sun, Findhorn Press 2007.