So there I was, in my 63rd year of life on this planet and getting my first skin exam by a dermatologist. She asked about time spent in the sun and I replied truthfully: that I attempted to achieve 10-20 minutes a day as fully exposed as possible on doctor’s orders. That’s when I got the look. And the inevitable “well I don’t agree with that!” after which she began to identify all the areas of my body that needed to be addressed. Now after two visits I have work to do on my story about an encounter with a shark to explain the 3 gnarly scars from incisions with God knows how many stitches. Also a few other spots that they “scraped and burned,” etc., along with the usual advice you get from skin doctors to just “stay out of the sun.”
Now begins the experience of people who have known me to joyfully shame me over what is perceived as my reckless relationship to el Sol. All attempts to try to defend myself have failed utterly, so I decided to stop wasting my energies which I need so badly to fight off all the ravages to this battered old body that my bad behavior has subjected me to. Rather, I’m just going to jot down a few thoughts and send out the link.
What I told the dermatologist about doctor’s orders was not just a euphemism, it was the truth. That’s because, besides having a primary care physician, I always have a functional medical provider as a consultant. In functional medicine the body is looked at as an interrelated system rather than unrelated parts that tend to be cared for by specialists who literally don’t have it in their job description to consider what impact the epidermis, or heart, or brain or whatever has on the rest of the system. Functional medicine also focuses heavily on the inputs we give to our system, especially nutrition but also exercise, stress management etc., and it focuses on prevention rather than reacting to symptoms after they manifest.
The fact is that the epidermis is an organ of the body, just like a liver or your lungs, and the nutrition it requires to accomplish its role comes from the sun. And while there are risks involved, there are also essential benefits from that. Most people know, for instance, that your skin synthesizes vitamin D from sun exposure, one of the most potent weapons we have to support our immune system to fight off all forms of disease, including cancer, and you cannot get enough of it from food to accomplish that. But there is much more than just that. One of the issues I have to keep an eye on, for instance, is blood pressure, and one of the key tools your body uses to moderate that is nitrous oxide which is released into your bloodstream by your epidermis upon interacting with sunshine. Portions of my life’s journey have left me with real issues to deal with in the realm of mental and emotional health, and the serotonin and endorphins released by your skin interacting with the sun are a part of helping with that, something most people are familiar with due to experiencing and/or hearing about “seasonal affective disorder,” a condition that occurs in the winter when our exposure to sunlight is limited. There are also very real benefits from exposure to UVA to the balance and diversity of our microbiomes, our “second brain” that controls virtually every aspect of our wellness and especially our immune function. Proper sun exposure also helps to regulate our circadian rhythms as well as release melatonin, both of which are essential to the quality and quantity of sleep. It is even linked with higher cognitive function, and God knows I can use all the help I can get with that.
All of these play into why the famous “Swedish women’s study,” which collected over 20 years of data from 30.000 women, concluded that those with limited sun exposure were twice as likely to die from all causes as those with regular access to sunshine. Another large study from that part of the world (Denmark) found people with actual diagnoses of skin cancer had lower rates of heart disease and death if they were regularly exposed to sunshine. I have likewise been fascinated by the study of Italian men that found a link between sun exposure and survivability rates of… wait for it… melanoma patients. Skin cancer, especially melanoma, is a real thing and not to be trifled with. One of my incisions was because of that, and I know someone who died of it. It wasn’t pretty. But the fact remains that skin cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer, but the least likely to kill you. And the benefits from sun exposure are a key part of your body's ability to fight all other forms of cancer, as well as heart disease and other issues, which are much more likely to have bad outcomes. Hence the results of those studies and others.
So yes: regardless of what the shame-sayers have to say about me, I have a very careful relationship to the sun. But that includes how I interact with it as well as the ways in which I avoid being damaged by exposure. Telling me to avoid sun exposure is like telling me to stop exercising because I might get injured. With all of these health metrics, I try to gain maximum benefit while mitigating the risks, always knowing that when I manage to get to zero risk will be when I’m 6 feet under.
More and more legitimate research is questioning the orthodoxy many of us still assume with regard to sun exposure, similar to how we are learning new ways to think of dietary fat, cholesterol, etc. If you get a big thrill with shaming me about how I interact with the sun, feel free. You do you. But please don’t just come at me with “my doctor says.” No doubt I’ve had at least one doctor who has said the same thing, and others who have said something different, I have collected a variety of different advice by now. I just ask you to concede that I have not entered into some kind of suicide pact with the sun, I do not dwell in an echo chamber of confirmation bias when it comes to health data, and I don’t get it from Facebook. If you want to interact with me on that subject in legitimate and useful ways, please read some of the resources below that I have extracted from my library and feel free to add to my knowledge base from other peer reviewed studies published in legitimate medical journals. I’m always open to learn and adapt my wellness model as we continue to gain knowledge.
And please believe me when I say that I have carefully reviewed my current relationship to the sun and find it to be adequate in my attempt to gain the benefits and mitigate the risks. I don’t allow myself to get sunburned anymore, especially not the peeling and blistering kind which I admittedly used to get routinely when I was younger. But there is no way I am going to just “stay out of the sun” (even if such a thing were possible), or slather myself with sunscreen whenever I’m outside. The sun is the source of all life on this planet, and I consider myself one of the beings who belong here. For those of us who believe that the mind and the body really are connected, I believe that approaching that source of life from a position of fear is to increase the chances of bad outcomes from interacting with it.
And yes, I will be returning regularly from now on to see my dermatologist and allow her to harass me about my tan and my relationship to the sun. Can’t wait for that.