'The sun is the source of all energy.' This is what my middle school science textbook taught me. In one way or other the sun sustains all life on earth. From the photosynthesis of plants, to the diurnal cycles of man, the sun influences everything everywhere.
The sun is constantly combining hydrogen atoms through a process called nuclear fusion to create helium and tonnes of energy. It is this energy that traverses the entire solar system and which sustains all life on earth. The energy produced by the sun, though not entirely constant, varies very little. Were the sun to produce any more or any less energy than what it currently does then we would not have life as we know it.
Our humans bodies have been crafted to have a healthy and respectful relationship with this life giving source. Scientists are only yet discovering the true extent of this wonderful relationship. Humans on the other hand are quickly forgetting age old wisdom and traditions that helped us evolve into these modern 21st century beings.
So let us dig into a few important things which is worthwhile to know.
Q. Why do we need the Sun?
A. It's Not Just The D Vitamin
You already know that sunlight is good for you as it plays a key role in the production of Vitamin D. But something I have heard asked time and again is the question 'why not just take Vitamin D supplements?'
It is true that Vitamin D supplements will provide for any deficiencies that you may have but that is not half the story. If you avoid the sun and simply rely on supplements you will be missing out on a whole host of other beneficial effects of the sun. You are not to be blamed for thinking that way for most physicians that I have spoken to have no clue about all these other benefits that come from the sun.
Recent studies show that sunlight by itself can decrease the risk of heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke in the elderly. Sunlight helps release nitric oxide into the blood stream which acts as a vasodilator thereby reducing blood pressure. Sunlight also helps the body to use insulin better and thus may have a role in helping to prevent Type 2 diabetes.
We all know how our spirits are lifted when the sun shines. This is because sunlight is a great mood elevator! It helps the brain produce more of the happy chemical serotonin which in turn helps lift your mood. Many people suffer yearly from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during the winter months. Lack of sunshine is the main cause.
The benefits of sunlight just ratchets up if we start looking at the Vitamin D hormone which it helps make. This little vitamin hormone regulates at least 1000 different genes that govern almost every tissue in the body. It helps us have strong and healthy bones, and, increases muscle strength and balance especially in the elderly. It may also decrease the risk of flu and that of active TB.
With all these health benefits at stake it is quite clear that we all need a little bit of sunshine in our lives. The amount of sunshine we need will depend on our skin colour, the latitude and altitude that we live at, and the season of the year. As a rule of thumb dark people will need more sunlight than lighter skinned people. It is advisable that all sunshine exposure be limited to the hours before 10 am and after 2 pm during summer.
Q. What is wrong about the Sunscreen hype?
A. Skin Cancers are rising and it just might be due to sunscreens in a way you haven't thought about. No, It's not about the claims that sunscreens contain carcinogenic ingredients!
Australia has the worrying distinction of having the highest rates of skin cancers in the world. Thus the past several years has seen a great push in public health messages to slap it on. But instead of seeing a decrease in sun related cancers especially melanomas we are seeing in increase. Here are some mind blowing statistics from the Cancer Australia data sets. In 1982, 3526 new cases of melanoma skin cancer were diagnosed. This increased to 12,036 in 2012. More worrying, the number of deaths from melanoma skin cancer increased from 315 in 1968 to 1,617 in 2013.
There is evidence to show that more awareness is leading to increased use of sunscreens. So it is not the lack of slapping it on that is the problem.
The problems lies in the fact that inadvertently sunscreens are promoting risky behaviour much like condoms did. And this risky behaviour can be deadly. Sunscreens are no substitute for sun sense.
The amount of sun you can take before being burned or before DNA damage is caused is linked to the amount of melanin your skin has. Below is a very useful image from the Sun Smart initiative which I have borrowed to help illustrate that point.
Just remember, Sunscreen is no substitute for Sun Sense.
Don't be misguided into slapping on some sunscreen and going to the beach or poolside to sunbathe in the hot blazing sun. It is not only ludicrous but also deadly. If you do have to venture out at midday in the hot sun the 1st and most important step is to cover up. Sunscreen, if necessary, should only be used alongside proper clothing.
Q. What is Sun Sense?
Sun sense is a term I coined to explain the Yellow Rule of my Seven Rainbow Rules™. Sun sense asks us to calibrate our behaviour according to our environment, respecting the sun and its power at all times.
Take for example the Arabs who are relatively fair skinned living in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel etc. They happen to live in some of the hottest and most sunniest parts of the world. But they have very low skin cancer rates compared to fair skinned people living in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. How do they do this?
The traditional middle eastern attire is long and flowing robes that cover almost the entire body. Most traditional attire also consists of a head covering which helps protect the neck area and much of the face. One would be hard pressed to see local Arabians sunbathing either.
They have evolved a culture which is respectful of their natural environment. Most cultures who have preserved their traditional way of living have a sensible and respectful relationship with the sun.
Widespread migration has led many Caucasians of fair skin to move from the cooler temperate regions of the world to live in conditions that are far harsher for their skin than their native climes. This, when coupled with unhelpful cultural practices such as sunbathing, inadequate clothing cover, and sun exposure even at midday has resulted in the sad state of skin damage, resulting skin cancers.
On the other hand dark skinned people tend to be overly concerned of over-exposure to the sun and tanning, which in turn leads to inadequate sun exposure and its consequent health problems. The effects of inadequate sun exposure are compounded when darker skinned people migrate to lands with fewer hours of sunlight.
What we need to understand is that it is essential for everyone to learn how to be respectful of the sun and how to adopt cultural practices that are more suited to their current environment and skin tone. This is Sun Sense.
Simply put, the sun is powerful. We need to learn how to simultaneously expose ourselves to its benefits as well as screen ourselves from its dangers.