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Sunlight: Beyond Vitamin D & Preventing Heart Disease

April 23, 2017

Summertime is around the corner, which means beach parties, traveling and increased sunlight time. For many, it's also time to bring out the sunscreen, covering up your skin, and umbrellas everywhere (where's the rain?).  Many people throughout Asia as very concerned with sun-related skin damage, which is a very real risk and therefore, justifies all of the sunscreen and umbrellas.  Or does it?

Dr. Richard Weller, a dermatologist, states that sunlight is the single largest contributor to skin cancer.  Almost every dermatologist and general physician, and mom, in the world will tell you the same thing.  But Dr. Weller has been leading research in the UK that is now saying sunlight exposure can actually benefit your cardiovascular health in ways that are almost unbelievable.  In his famous TED Talk, he points out that Australian's have 1/3 the amount of heart disease cases than the United Kingdom, even after adjusting for almost every possible lifestyle factor: smoking, income, exercise, etc. The one key difference these two countries is the amount of sunlight the people can be exposed to throughout the year.  He has even compared heart disease figures within the United Kingdom and found that as you go further and further north, the likelihood of developing heart disease climbs.

 

Dr. Weller goes on a bit further by saying "My day job is saying to people,'You've got skin cancer, it's caused by sunlight, don't go in the sun.' I actually think a far more important message is that there are benefits as well as risks to sunlight. Yes, sunlight is the major alterable risk factor for skin cancer, but deaths from heart disease are a hundred times higher than deaths from skin cancer. And I think that we need to be more aware of, and we need to find the risk-benefit ratio.  How much sunlight is safe, and how can we finesse this best for our general health?"

 

What benefits come from sunlight?

The most commonly thought of benefit is Vitamin D production.  The National Institutes of Health explains that Vitamin D is found naturally in very few foods, although supplements have been added to certain products and food.  However, our bodies produce it naturally when exposed to the sun.  Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption in the gut and helps to maintain bone integrity and growth.  "Without sufficient vitamin D, bones can become thin, brittle, or misshapen. Vitamin D sufficiency prevents rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. Together with calcium, vitamin D also helps protect older adults from osteoporosis.  Vitamin D has other roles in the body, including cell growth, neuromuscular and immune function, and reduction of inflammation."  The University of Oxford has led research on Vitamin D and have found that it is also known to regulate at least 200 genes in the body.

 

"There seems to be a lot of data suggesting that vitamin D is very good for you," says Dr. Weller, "but if you give people vitamin D supplements, you don't change that high rate of heart disease."  However, exposure to sunlight does.  Why is this?  The answer: nitric oxide.

"Nitric oxide dilates blood vessels, so it lowers your blood pressure. It also dilates the coronary arteries, so it stops angina" (chest pain or discomfort caused when your heart muscle doesn't get enough oxygen-rich blood) - all good things for our hearts.  During Dr. Weller's research, he learned that the skin produces nitric oxide and converts itself into solid forms (nitric oxide is a gas and therefore, cannot stay within the skin).  These solid forms (technically other chemicals) do not have any of the positive effects of nitric oxide.  However, when exposed to ultra-violet light (the stuff in sunshine), these solid forms quickly turned into the gas form of nitric oxide and improved blood flow in the specific area exposed to the light.

 

Dr. Weller and his team are still researching this, but their findings-to-date are changing the common thought of sun exposure already.  There is still a risk of skin diseases from too much sunlight, but the key phrase here is "TOO MUCH."  Just because evidence says too much of something is bad, don't overcorrect because very often, that overcorrection is just as bad.  Sunlight and sunblock need to be used in balance with each other.  Obviously, you want to prevent a sunburn and if you're going to the beach for the day, you should wear sun protection.  But if you're going on a 20 minute walk in the park at 2pm, ditch the umbrella and let those sun rays give you an added heart-healthy boost.

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