Conscious tanning, part I: Eat your sunscreen

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The sun has such a bad reputation these days that reliance on sunscreen has become an accepted norm. This is especially common with those who are not able to go out to the sun during the week and want to ‘make up’ at weekends or during holidays. They may plaster themselves in lotions and potions, and lie out there for hours. Parents also don't want their little ones to get burnt so cover them in sunscreen from head to toe, and often follow with a onesie. Needless to say, some people still burn, react to the sun and even sunscreen.

At the same time, deficiency of sunshine vitamin D is more and more prevalent in the developed world, and vitamin D is one of the most commonly purchased supplements these days. Both, science and my clinical experience indicate that all chronic health issues call for optimal vitamin D status – including all skin conditions, sun allergy and even skin cancer, all of  which are on the rise.

Given the opposites, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Most importantly, I think that

If the sun was bad for humans, we would not continue to evolve on a planet that’s exposed to sunshine.

At the same time, prolonged sun exposure for fairer-skinned types may not agree with their physiology, at least not until they have built up resistance to burning.

In this post, I will discuss the importance of three key nutrients that are necessary for building natural defences against burning, sun allergy and reactions to sunscreen.

What is vitamin D - simplified

Vitamin D (really a hormone but this goes beyond the scope of this article) belongs to the group of fat soluble vitamins, and all fat soluble vitamins are stored in the liver for future use. Sunshine helps to synthesise vitamin D, therefore sufficient reserves can be built up during the summer and used throughout winter months. As some of the chemicals present in conventional sunscreen can block the synthesis of vitamin D, it makes sense that the need for supplementation is on the rise.

Vitamin D not only affects mineral metabolism (e.g. calcium needed for strong bones) for which it is mostly known. In fact, all cells in the body have a vitamin D receptor. For that reason, it is critical to all bodily functions, including modulating allergy response (sun allergy and reactions to sunscreen), repair mechanisms (sunburn) antioxidant action (anti-ageing) and skin growth, which explains why tanning can even improve skin texture in some people.

How vitamin D is produced - simplified

When cholesterol in the skin is exposed to UVB rays (the highest concentration is when the sun is at its highest, which is around noon - just when tanning is supposed to be most dangerous), the liver and kidneys convert it into vitamin D3, its active and most bioavailable form.

The liver synthesises cholesterol regardless of dietary sources but it’s a complex process that may put a burden on the liver. As there is no cholesterol in plant foods, providing dietary cholesterol in the form of animal fats can supply the necessary building blocks for vitamin D synthesis.

Dietary sources of vitamin D

We can also provide ready-made vitamin D3 in the form of animal foods, and it’s interesting to see that foods with high concentration of cholesterol are also high in vitamin D3. As always, nature knows best. These include:

  • eggs (especially egg yolks)
  • cod liver oil
  • liver
  • lard (pastured is best)
  • oily fish, seafood, fish eggs, oysters

Vegans should be emphasising sun exposure even more because they cannot obtain vitamin D3 from vegan food sources.

Test – don’t guess

If you suffer from sun allergy or your skin gets easily red and damaged after sun exposure, checking your vitamin D status can be beneficial. It will not only indicate one of the possible causes, but you may also discover why other chronic health issues have been lingering. I have also had clients who get quite dark in the summer, and yet are deficient. Sunscreen, diet, lifestyle and other underlying physiological factors are to blame.

Symbiotic relationship of vitamin D and A

Vitamin A works in tandem with vitamin D, and one can be toxic without the other. True vitamin A is called retinol, which is a well known ingredient in anti-ageing skincare. Just like vitamin D, it is also a fat soluble vitamin that is stored in the liver. Some of retinol’s functions include immune modulation (sun allergy and reactions to sunscreen), repair (sunburn) and assimilation of protein (skin elasticity and repair).

Retinol can only be found in animal foods. Beta carotene is often called ‘vitamin A’ but in fact, only a small percentage of beta carotene can be converted to retinol, given your liver works well and you’re not deficient in zinc. Children under the age of 5 cannot convert beta carotene to retinol at all, and this is why their skin turns orange from carrot juice. Saying that, beta carotene has strong anti-oxidant properties, which is anti-ageing, and regular consumption can help to achieve deep, golden tan.

Food sources of retinol

...are very similar to cholesterol and vitamin D rich foods:

  • cod liver oil
  • liver
  • eggs (especially egg yolk)
  • butter and ghee

Food sources of beta carotene:

  • carrots
  • sweet potato
  • pumpkin
  • butternut squash
  • apricots
  • cantaloupe
  • spinach
  • kale

Omega 3 – the true weapon against burning

Not only does it help to repair skin and has strong anti-inflammatory properties, but most importantly it protects the skin from not getting burnt in the first place. There are a number of different types and sources of omega 3 fatty acids but the one associated with prolonged resistance to burns is called EPA which, again, occurs only in animal fats. Some people claim they fully reversed skin discolouration with ongoing intake of EPA which often happens due to nutrient deficiencies while tanning.

Foods rich in omega 3 (EPA)

  • Cod liver oil
  • Grass-fed meat (grain fed meat is richer in omega 6 fatty acids)
  • Oily fish
  • Pastured eggs / chickens (not fed with corn or any other grains as these will be richer in omega 6 fatty acids)

Summary

Tanning is extremely beneficial to health in many ways, most of which have not even been discussed in this article. If vitamin D is produced by the sun, and might be protective against cancer or over-reactive immune system, then the paradox is that the sun can actually help conditions that we blame it for, from skin cancer to allergy. Moreover, it is not the sun or sunscreen themselves that cause skin reactions - it's the immune system that's overreacting because of various internal imbalances. I think that conscious sun exposure is the key to its medicinal properties. Along with a nutrient dense diet that is rich in vilified animal fats, quality cod liver oil is my recommended panacea for healthy sun exposure.

In part II I will address external sun protection, along with building tolerance to tanning.