Sunshine and Human Health 

How Our Forgotten Relationship with the Sun is Contributing to a Generational Health Decline

 

 

Long ago… we were naked. A lot.
Most people were naked, or mostly naked, most of the time. Except for those enduring extreme cold.
In ancient times, where accomplishing the bare essentials of survival  (constructing tools, building and maintaining shelter, acquiring food) was a full-time life-or-death effort, nobody was wasting time making clothing unless it was essential to survival. Clothing was functional, not fashionable. 
Once first-world people started getting advanced and technological and our basic survival was guaranteed, we had a lot of spare time and resources. Part of that was directed at getting a bit crazy with clothing. Advancing from primitive times where everyone, from a fashion perspective, looked terrible, it’s not hard to see why people embraced the colorful, high quality, respect-earning attire that they did in the early era of modern clothing. Look at people in the 1800s. They’re all overdressed, all the time. Even in the scorching hot southern United States (think Gone with the Wind or To Kill a Mockingbird) men were dressed in full-body suits and women in full-body dresses. No t-shirts, no tank tops, no shorts, and definitely no short-shorts.
Some would say that this was the influence of prudish, puritan Christian culture attempting to banish sightings of flesh. Maybe. But I think people just thought clothing was really, really cool once it really started getting advanced and they were just having fun with it. 
With all of this extra, excessive clothing though people were getting substantially less sun exposure.
This was mostly fine and dandy for a long time, but then some other innovations emerged.
First the automobile. Before cars, if you wanted to go somewhere you had to walk, bicycle, or ride a horse. Before cars, going somewhere meant being in the sun for a period of time. Even though everybody was overly-dressed around this time, most people still spent a great deal of time outdoors out of necessity. Unless you wanted to spend your entire life inside your place you had to incidentally get out in the sun in order to be anywhere else.
With cars though, sunshine started becoming eliminated from transportation. By driving a car, you were leaving your place of shelter, getting inside a mobile transport shelter, and relocating yourself to the next place of shelter. 
Then another big innovation: electric fans and air conditioning. Before air conditioning, being indoors all day was not very appealing for those living in hot climates. There wasn’t much of a temperature difference between being indoors or outdoors and outdoors is where the breeze was.
But with cool air conditioning, people started spending more and more time indoors. 
Outdoor professions went from being the norm to now being a rarity these days. An outdoor worker in the 21st century first-world is a fascinating, time-traveling relic from another time.
What has happened is we have almost entirely, or absolutely for many people, severed our relationship with the sun.
Most people barely get any sun at all these days and even on the rare occasion where they do, most seek to protect themselves from it as much as possible by applying liquid-clothing sunblock.
Humans evolved for hundreds of thousands of years in the outdoors for an outdoor existence, but in the blink of an eye (in evolution time) we have mostly adopted a fully-indoor way of living.
Here’s the problem: that’s not what we’re biologically evolved for. For 99.99999999% of human history we were all naked in the sunshine and we physically depend on sun exposure for our health and survival – basically to the same extent that we depend on water, food, and sleep for our survival.
This is because our bodies have evolved to produce an anabolic seco-steroid hormone from sun exposure to our naked, uncovered skin called cholecaciferol, aka vitamin D3. (Technically vitamin D3 is not actually a vitamin.)
Your skin contains a vitamin D precursor called 7-dehydrocholesterol. When 7-dehydrocholesterol is exposed to UVB rays from the sun it undergoes a chemical reaction and transforms into “pre-vitamin D.” These “pre-vitamin D” molecules are absorbed into your bloodstream and are transformed into hormonally-active vitamin D by coming into contact with what are called vitamin D receptors (VDRs). These VDRs are contained in basically every cell, tissue, and organ in your body and vitamin D has been found to be involved in over 2,000 biological processes in your body. It’s vitally important.
Technically speaking, you can’t live without vitamin D. If you were to be completely depleted you would suffer immediate death. For example, the highest priority function of vitamin D is calcium absorption and no vitamin D means no calcium absorption. Your heart requires a certain level of blood calcium to function. If blood calcium gets too low (hypocalcemia) for too long the heart fails.
And that’s certainly not all vitamin D has been found to be essential for. As a powerful immunomodulator, vitamin D maintains the ability of our immune cells to properly distinguish between threats and healthy tissues – no vitamin D means substantially increased risk of suffering autoimmune disorders such as type-1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
As a mediator of cellular apoptosis, vitamin D has been found to be an enormous factor in cancer prevention.
Without vitamin D your bones demineralize, essentially turn into jello, and your skeleton will become misshapen and deformed. This condition takes various forms such as osteomalacia and osteoporosis.
Now here’s the most important fact to know about vitamin D: you don’t get it from your regular diet. You have two ways of getting adequate vitamin D and two ways only. Proper, regular, unprotected sun exposure to your naked skin (ideal, natural, simple, safe, biologically superior) or proper supplementation (less ideal, potentially dangerous, more complicated, unnatural).
If you’re not supplementing or getting lots of sun exposure to your naked skin, 99% chance you’re vitamin D-deficient. You’ll get trace amounts from your diet, enough to prevent fatal vitamin D deficiency, but far, far, far from enough to stave off the longer-latency effects of vitamin D deficiency.
What do I mean by “longer-latency effects?” Most of the diseases caused by vitamin D deficiency take years and decades to develop. They’re sneaky. And for that reason deadly.
If you’re potassium-deficient, for example, you’ll start getting muscle cramps right away. Vitamin D deficiency on the other hand will result in the slow, slow deterioration and malfunction of many aspects of your health over a very long time. Most of these problems will likely be overlooked entirely, attributed simply to ageing, be misdiagnosed completely, or chalked up to mystery. Osteomalacia, for example, is one of the more immediate severe vitamin D  deficiency symptoms and due to the pain it causes, is often misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia. This misdiagnosis then leads to incorrect treatment of the symptoms, causing additional problems and leaving the original, still-persisting problem unresolved.
Some people roll their eyes at the “vitamin D cult” and find it hard to believe that one single substance can be so vitally important, deficiency of it can cause so many health problems, and that vitamin D is effective for treating so many health ailments. But consider the discovery that a tiny bit of vitamin C prevents and cures scurvy. Scurvy causes a terrifying and fatal deterioration of the human body and it’s cause eluded researchers for thousands of years until it was discovered that simply consuming a tiny bit of fruit or vegetables in your diet prevents and cures scurvy entirely. Terrible, terrible health condition, but unbelievably simple and easy cure.
What about water? The most important substance for our health of all. You need lots of it every single day and if you’re deprived you’ll soon die. 
Vitamin D is near that level of biological importance. The narrative that vitamin D is a “cure-all panacea” is an incorrect straw-man argument. Rather, vitamin D deficiency causes terrible, potentially fatal, health problems similar to how water or vitamin C deficiency can be deadly.
The only difference with vitamin D is that it takes a much longer period of time to suffer deficiency symptoms, leading to lack of and inaccurate detection. Also, with vitamin D, we luckily have the advantage that we’re able to get it from sun exposure without even thinking about it, whereas water and vitamin C may require more deliberate consumption. This allows the vast majority of people to get just enough vitamin D to stave off the ugliest, most noticeable symptoms of deficiency.
When you walk outside to your mailbox on a sunny summer day, provided you’re not wearing a burka, you’re getting a little bit of vitamin D. Same as when you walk out to your car or take the dog out. This is the equivalent of taking a spoonful of lemon juice to ward off scurvy. However, these small incidental doses of sunshine are not at all adequate for maintaining optimal health.
For the vast majority of our history we were naked outdoors the vast majority of the time. With all of this sun exposure, ancient humans were essentially hooked up to a vitamin D IV bag all day every day. And the research suggests that ancient humans were actually stronger, healthier, and smarter than we are today. Don’t let our modern technology fool you – we’re standing on our naked ancestors’ shoulders.
How much sun exposure do we need? Answer: about the same amount that our ancient, naturally-living ancestors would have received living their daily lives. Which is a lot. Probably 20x more than the average American receives today.
What is the optimal vitamin D level? Answer: the level that a person would develop from being naked outside all day. Lifeguards, who live this way more than anybody these days, typically have very high vitamin D levels just below what “experts” currently consider excessive.
But what is the vitamin D level of the average westerner? Very, very low. I have a list here of 46 population vitamin D level studies conducted in many different countries and all over the United States. Every single one of them has found that the average person has low vitamin D levels. There is not one single population vitamin D level study of the first world in all the history of these studies finding an adequate average vitamin D level. Even studies in Florida find that the average level is not good.
Many of these studies are actually even worse than reported because over time the standard for what is considered vitamin D deficiency keeps rising. Most vitamin D experts now agree that anything below 50 ng/ml is insufficient, but most of these studies used an insufficiency standard of 20 ng/ml or less.
And despite the outdated deficiency standard still typically used, population vitamin D levels have been found to be declining over the decades. People are going outside less and less and protecting themselves from the sun more and more when they do.
There is one study that analyzed the vitamin D levels of primitively-living people of various equatorial African tribes. These people had pretty good vitamin D levels and it’s because they’re basically naked, in the sunshine, a lot. I’m not saying quit your job and join a jungle tribe, but you’d be wise to live just a little bit like they do.
Another giant culprit in declining vitamin D levels is the sun scare propaganda marketed mainly by the cosmetic industry. Believe it or not, sunscreen is actually a billion dollar industry just in America alone. The basic sales pitch of sunscreen is: sun exposure is bad for you and causes skin cancer, avoid the sun, and if you do get out in the sun be sure to slather on a bunch of our product and it will protect you. Just keep in mind that the survival of these sunscreen companies depends entirely on lots and lots of people believing this sales pitch and believing it very strongly.
I do believe that sunblock is important and has its place, but most users use way too much of it way too often. Nevermind that the majority of sunscreens have actually been found to contain harmful chemicals (which is why there are different versions for children), but studies have found that even an extremely weak SPF8 sunscreen, when applied in the recommended amount, reduces vitamin D production by 95%.
So what happens when the average person barely ever gets outside and when they do they’re constantly seeking shade and slathering on sunscreen that reduces vitamin D production by 95-99%? They’re not producing any vitamin D.
Another problem with sunscreens is that early versions blocked UVB rays, responsible for the more noticeable external sun damage, but not UVA, which actually causes worse damage, but to the inner layers of skin. Early sunscreens probably caused more skin cancer than they prevented by prompting people to stay outdoors much longer than they would have without sunscreen. As a result, early sunscreen users probably incurred more sun damage. UVB is also the type of ultraviolet light that produces vitamin D, so while UVB is what causes noticeable sun burning (in excess) this is actually the type of UV you do want to expose yourself to. 
Interestingly, many studies have actually found that purely indoor workers suffer higher rates of melanoma skin cancer (the skin cancer that actually kills people) compared to purely outdoor workers and that the melanomas are most commonly found on parts of the body least exposed to sun. Although severe sunburns do contribute to melanoma, researchers have concluded that melanoma is as much a symptom of vitamin D deficiency (resulting from a lack of sun exposure) as it is an effect of excessive sun damage. It has also been found that melanoma patients reporting the most lifetime sun exposure enjoy better survival rates.
Excessive, long-term sun exposure does contribute to non-melanoma skin cancers, but the survival rate for these is 99.9%. Non-melanoma skin cancers are very easy to treat and are typically just an annoyance rather than a serious health concern.
Skin cancers also typically appear as people get older. Part of this is because older people have more accumulated sun damage, but another, seldom mentioned, cause is that old people tend to have much lower vitamin D levels. People tend to become less physically active as they enter their senior years and transition into a more sedentary indoor lifestyle, which reduces their sun exposure and vitamin D levels. As we age we also slowly lose our ability to produce vitamin D from sun exposure, further contributing to old-age vitamin D deficiency.
As vitamin D deficiency has been found to be an extremely strong factor for most internal cancers, could increased skin cancer among the elderly also be a symptom of vitamin D deficiency? 
The research suggests so. 
While sun exposure is essential and vitally important to human health, it is not without potential negative side effects. Excessive sun exposure can cause burning, leading to skin cancer, and photoageing. But amazingly, the antidote to sun exposure’s negative side effects is actually… regular, moderate sun exposure.
The nasty effects of sun exposure are experienced by people who barely ever get any sun and then get massive doses of it periodically. The indoor office worker who goes to the beach and gets barbecued a few times per year. This is the worst way to get sun exposure because you have zero sun tolerance and you’re at a high risk of suffering damage. 
Our bodies possess the amazing natural capability to protect us from the harmful effects of the sun, while still allowing us to enjoy the benefits, but only if you don’t allow this part of your biology to atrophy.
For example, we all know about tanning. You spend time in the sun, you get darker, and you become less likely to sunburn over time. This is called a melanin-response. Your body is adapting to your increased time spent in the sun. The biological purpose of melanin is it’s a natural sunscreen. If your ancestors evolved close to the equator you’ll be born with more melanin. If your ancestors evolved far away from the equator, you’ll be born with less melanin. The best way to protect yourself from the sun is to develop some melanin. How do you do that? Get some sun. (Unless you’re a type 1 skin type, then you’re screwed. Sorry.)
Although black people can potentially experience sunburn, it is extraordinarily rare and they also have extremely low rates of basal cell carcinoma (the skin cancer most directly associated with sun exposure). This is because they have a lot of melanin providing sun protection. Their equatorial ancestors required this melanin to survive intense daily sun exposure.
Another incredible natural sun protectant we have is vitamin D itself. Studies have found that vitamin D has a sunburn-preventing effect. People with higher vitamin D levels (even if achieved through oral supplements) suffer less sunburn and heal faster when they do get burned.
I live in Florida, I’ve been sunbathing regularly for years, and spend as much of my time outside as I can. Despite being of English descent and naturally pale, I suffer about one minor sunburn per year in the summer and I use such little sunscreen that the last time I bought a brand new bottle was two years ago. The bottle is tiny and still half-full. 
The best way to get your sun exposure is to get it as often as you can, but in moderate-length doses. Going without any sun for weeks or months and then spending a full day at the beach might be a bad idea. It’s much better to get an hour or two of sunshine daily.
Another thing you must do when getting your sun exposure is to be as naked and unprotected as you can. The ideal would be naked with no sunscreen. Be this way for as long as you think you can safely handle. For a very fair-skinned person, this might only be thirty minutes. For a darker, tanned person it could be hours and hours. The goal is to get as much unprotected sun exposure as you can, but without getting burned at all. As long as you’re not getting burned, then the more sun exposure the better. Ideally you want to achieve the slightest shade of pink. This is called a minimal erythemal dose (MED), the maximum amount of sun exposure you can get without suffering damage. This is also the dose that will give you the most vitamin D. Every person will have a different, unique length of time to achieve a MED.
Once you’ve reached the point where you’re at risk for burning get out of the sun, get in the shade, put on sunscreen, or put on clothes. It’s very important though to get at least a little bit of unprotected sun exposure first.
The time of day you get your sunshine is of critical importance. Contrary to what the sunscreen promoters say, it is actually the more intense midday sun exposure you want. You want a UV index of at least 3. This is when the sunshine features UVB and UVB is what you require to produce vitamin D. I call this the “vitamin D window” or “vitamin D o’ clock.” This will be different depending on your latitude and time of the year, but generally for America spring through summer this will be roughly 10am to 2pm. Use an hourly UV index reporting website to find out the specifics of your area. In Miami at the peak of winter the window is 11am – 2pm at best, but expands to 9:30am – 5:30pm at the peak of summer and the peak UV index is three times stronger. A stronger UV index will result in faster vitamin D production.
Sun exposure received outside of the vitamin D/UVB window will provide little, if any, health benefit. This is 100% UVA and you don’t get any vitamin D from it. Although UVA has been found to offer some small benefits, it has also been found to be more strongly associated with melanoma skin cancer. This can be a major problem because many people believe that tanning in the morning or late afternoon/evening is safer and will maintain this habit for many years, when the reality is that it’s actually more dangerous and damaging. UVA damage is just less detectable than UVB damage. You’re accumulating sun damage, but not getting any of the protective vitamin D benefit. 
You shouldn’t be scared to death of UVA, but just make sure you’re also getting at least an equal exposure to UVB.
Objectively and scientifically, nude sunbathing is one of the most positive things you can do for your health after water, sleep, nutritious food, and exercise. There are many, many studies independently finding that vitamin D improves male testosterone levels, male and female fertility, cognitive function, muscular performance, mood, mental health, is essential for fetal development, and even reverses autoimmune disorders, prevents cancer, and heals brain damage. When listing the health benefits of vitamin D, it’s easy to see why a skeptical person might think that all of that sounds exaggerated, but as of this writing there are over 83,000 vitamin D studies in the PubMed database and the vast, vast majority find the same thing: the anabolic “sunshine hormone” vitamin D is vital to our health and we biologically require sun exposure for good health.
Oral supplementation has its place, but it’s actually much more complicated to do properly than most think and has been found to be inferior to sun exposure. Vitamin D created from sun exposure has been found to last twice as long in your body compared to supplements and only your body knows exactly how much vitamin D you need at a given moment and will produce that needed dose accordingly. You and your doctor will never really know exactly what your personal optimal vitamin D dose is, but you might get close after years of quarterly testings of your vitamin D, parathyroid hormone, and urine calcium levels. 
Count me out. I’ll stick with getting some sun on my buns.
Until next time,

 

Austin

 

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