Have you ever wondered why the further we live from the equator the paler our skins become? One of the most important vitamins to maintain good health is vitaminD, and what is the best source of vitamin D? The sun. Through evolution, as tribes migrated further and further from the equator, their skin became paler, so they could absorb as much vitamin D as possible from the diminishing sunrays. I find nature astoundingly resilient and, as a back-up plan to the fading of skin tones, the more north and south humans began to travel - receiving less and less benefit from the sun - nature provided an alternative source of vitamin D in cold-water oily fish.

There is a huge trick we can play on our body by being outdoors more often. Once out in the sun, our primally-designed body says, “Hey, spring must be around the corner, the days will be longer, and I will catch or gather more food”. As a result, our metabolism gets a boost and we feel full of energy. In contrast, when we stay indoors and avoid the sun, hibernating on our sofas, the body predicts that winter must be coming – food will be become scarce - and therefore the body releases hormones that slow everything down. We feel lethargic, and as our metabolism becomes sluggish, we have neither the energy nor inclination to do anything remotely energetic. Isn’t it remarkable that something as simple as being indoors or outdoors can have either a positive or negative spiralling effect on our wellbeing and energy levels?

Sadly, my mother refuses to come on many summer holidays with my wife, our children and me because she has been told by her doctors not to go out in the sun. She has missed out on so much over recent years, and even though many experts are now advising completely the opposite, it is proving difficult to get her to listen to recent research. Even when we explain that there is so much evidence that we are more likely to get cancer by avoiding the sun than going out in it, my mother just won’t have it!

Of course, while turning lobster red is dangerous for all of us, getting an all-over light suntan is extremely beneficial. Not only does it make us feel great, it increases our body’s ability to create vitamin D, which is one of the most essential vitamins of all.

Did our ancestors stay in his cave all day? Of course not, he was out and about trying to catch dinner. Did he smear factor 50 all over his body? Again, the point is our DNA expects us to be in the sun. Just as ancient hunter-gatherers would have done, we should shelter in the shade when it gets too hot, or after we have had enough exposure for our natural skin tone, but for those who avoid the sun altogether it’s a huge health risk.

In March 2017, The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported, “Experts have overturned decades of advice by urging people to go out in the midday sun without sunblock – because the dangers of missing out on vitamin D can outweigh the risk of cancer”. It goes on to say, “The definitive statement by seven leading health groups and charities, including Cancer Research UK, the National Osteoporosis Society and Multiple Sclerosis Society, is designed to clarify conflicting messages. It concluded that surrendering your body to the sun for 10 minutes should take place at midday during the summer months because that is when the sun is strong enough to trigger the body into making vitamin D”. The research was also supported by the British Association of Dermatologists, the National Heart Forum and the Primary Care Dermatology Society – that’s a pretty comprehensive bunch of leading authorities.

sunny beach

How Much Vitamin D Do I Need?

The US government recommends that children should receive 200IUs a day, those of us aged between 50 and 70, 400IUs and once we are more than 70 years old, 600IUs. But what is an IU? It stands for International Unit and it is used to measure the weight of how much of a vitamin we should consume daily, so 1,000IU = 1g. While the US government issue the above recommendations for vitamin D, many other specialists and nutritionists suggest we all benefit from substantially more. But how long does it take us to generate 1g of vitamin D by being in the sun? It is believed that if we stay out for just a few minutes each day, revealing most of our body to the light, then we will easily set the body up to create 1,000IUs. If we want to build up a reserve of vitamin D, then we should stay outside a little longer. However, to avoid burning, we shouldn’t sit in the sun for more than 25 – 50% of the time that it would normally take us to turn a pinkish colour.

In 2002, scientists in Boston came to the conclusion that, “Small amounts of sunshine can greatly reduce the risk of breast, colon and prostate cancers”. More recently, research released in March 2016 - after studying 29,518 women in Sweden over a 20- year period - suggested that those who avoided the sun were likely to die prematurely, with frighteningly similar statistics to those who smoked! They went on to say that, “Compared to the highest sun exposure group, life expectancy of avoiders of sun exposure was reduced by 0.6 – 2.1 years”. Sunlight hitting the skin helps the body produce vitamin D, which in turn plays an important role in calcium metabolism, which in turn leads to healthier bones. The good news for those of us who live in the sun-deprived UK is that, as vitamin D is fat soluble, it can be stored in the body for fairly long periods of time.

Unfortunately, as we get older our body becomes less efficient at converting sun exposure into vitamin D. My poor mother. At the precise period in her life when she needs to be going out in the sun for longer periods, and uncovering more of her body to the healing benefits of the sun, on the odd occasion that she does venture outdoors on a sunny day, she dresses more like a teenager wearing a hoodie! Getting outdoors in the sun is not just about providing a much-needed boost to our vitamin D reserves. Exposure to sunlight tends to lift our mood and reduce stress. It’s also good for reducing both blood pressure and acne!

In June 2016, The Mirror newspaper ran an article with the headline, ‘Health benefits of sunbathing outweigh skin cancer risks’. The article goes on to say, “Sunbathing also reduces blood pressure, cuts the risk of heart attacks and is more likely to prolong life than shorten it. Sun worshippers worried by gloomy warnings [that] they risk getting skin cancer can start looking on the bright side”. The same article goes further by stating, “The big discovery is that when skin is exposed to sunlight, a compound called nitric oxide is released in blood vessels that helps lower blood pressure”. In a recent podcast I recorded with Dr Malcolm Kendrick, he confirmed this point and actually stated that because nitric oxide is so essential in maintaining the health of our endothelium (the inner lining of our artery walls), getting sufficient sunshine is one of the best protective measures you can take to avoid a heart attack.

Living in the UK, with our infrequent bouts of sunshine, what we need to know is how long after we return from our holidays abroad can our body store vitamin D? According to a 2010 article published by Paediatric Nephrology, vitamin D can be stored in the fat tissue for approximately two months. It’s important to note the same article reveals that, once we have been in the sun, we shouldn’t go and immediately have a soapy shower, as it apparently can take half an hour or so for the skin to complete the cycle of synthesising vitamin D.

What about sunbeds – are they a valid way to obtain a suntan? It appears that as long as they effectively balance UVA and UVB rays in a similar proportion to the sun, and that they are fitted with modern low-pressure lamps, then they are no different to sitting out in the sun and similar precautions, such as how long we should be exposed, therefore apply. If it’s an older machine that only produces UVA rays, then other than getting a tan there is little medical benefit. This is because we need UVB rays to stimulate vitamin D production.

Natural sunbathing

So, should we use a sunbed? It’s obviously more primal to harness the sun’s magic healing powers – not only is it free, it doesn’t use expensive electricity, so therefore it’s kinder to the planet. But if we don’t have a chance to get out in the sun, then by all means use a sunbed. However, remain respectful of its powers and don’t go getting burnt, as it still holds true that overexposure can lead to skin cancer. You may also have heard some people say that they like to build a base tan on a sunbed before going on their annual holiday. There is some logic in this, as it is possible to build-up melanin levels in our skin that can provide a little bit of natural protection against burning. But please do it in moderation and in short bursts.

If you want to learn more about the benefits of being in the sun, let me recommend you read Dr Michael Holick’s book, The UV Advantage, in which he states, “Lack of sunlight is associated with a host of conditions from colon, breast, prostate and ovarian cancer to heart disease, high blood pressure, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and depression”. Dr Holick is an endocrinologist, and he has some very sensible advice on sun cream too. He believes that the higher the SPF, the less vitamin D gets through, and once we get to SPF 15 or above, the benefit of the sun is reduced by 99.9%. Dr Holick says that when he goes out in the sun, he does 10 minutes without sun cream and then puts it on to prevent overdoing it. Later in his book, he goes on to say that he believes the correct exposure to sunlight has an equal benefit on the health of our heart to that of exercise! Then, in a section under the heading ‘In the Beginning’, Dr Holick talks of how ancient man understood the benefit of sunlight. From studying paintings in caves, he suggests that we can assume that even primal man understood the benefits of sun therapy.

Here’s one final thought from Dr Holick, which fits with my belief that too many companies care more about their profit than they do people or the planet: “How did we reach a point in our history when sun became something to be feared instead of worshipped? Shunned instead of desired? The simple answer lies in the fact that there are many billions of dollars to be made in emphasising the only major medical downside of sun exposure (non-melanoma skin cancer) and not much money to be made in promoting the sun’s many benefits”.

American Dr William Grant believes, “An increase of sun exposure in the USA would result in 185,000 less cases of internal cancer”. Compare that to the 1,200 people who sadly die of skin cancer, and I am sure you will draw the same conclusion as I have that sensible sunbathing is extremely beneficial for our health. However, let me repeat the sunburn warning. While we are after a light suntan, we don’t want to burn. Remember, it takes approximately three or four hours after being in the sun for our sunburn to reveal itself. This is caused by extra blood flow to the burnt areas and doesn’t normally reach its peak for around 18 hours after overexposure. So please, whatever you do, don’t sit in the sun until you burn, otherwise it is going to be extremely detrimental to your health. Put simply, suntans are good for health on so many levels, and can prevent multiple cancers, yet sunburn caused by overexposure can cause skin cancer.

Let me explain the approach I take for my family and myself. We try on most school holidays to take the kids somewhere warm, where we can top up their vitamin D levels. We ensure each day that they go outside in the morning and play or swim without sunscreen. Jack, Tom, and even our little four-year-old Louie, go a lovely light-brown shade, and for them 50 minutes exposure is absolutely fine without any protection. I believe the girls would start going red after about 40 minutes, so I get them to go under the shade after about 20. (These are only approximations as it depends how close to the equator we have ventured.) Once they have hit about 50% of the exposure that would normally make them turn slightly red, they go in the shade and chill out for about half an hour, allowing their bodies sufficient time to maximise the gift they have received from nature. Then we slap on the sunscreen, allow it to soak in for 10 minutes or so, and let them go back out and play. What’s more, we always make sure the lotions are as organic as possible, and when the kids or my wife and I are at a level where a SPF factor 8 is sufficient, we no longer use sun lotion and instead use coconut oil. Believe it or not, the very same oil that we recommend we cook food in, is Mother Nature’s SPF level 8!

Depending on what you have been taught, you might feel that letting our four-year- old son out in the sun without any protection is irresponsible. But it really isn’t. Sadly, we see too many misinformed parents who, with only the child’s best interest at heart, slap on sun protection before the kid has had any chance to take in sufficient sunrays to convert to vitamin D. As long as we soak up plenty of sunshine in the summer, it will almost see us through the early part of the winter - especially if we can top it up by eating plenty of oily fish. If we feel we are running low on vitamin D, we can always ask our doctor to test our blood specifically for vitamin D levels - if he or she feels we are running low, then there are plenty of vitamin D supplements on the market. It’s also likely that, if we are running low, our kids are too and therefore the whole family could do with eating more oily fish or taking vitamin D supplements. Better still, take a family holiday and boost your vitamin D levels through nature’s natural source, sunshine.

If you still are not convinced about spending more time in the sun, then be sure to eat plenty of eggs, oily fish and consider taking a quality vitamin D supplement. Or get hold of Jeff T Bowles’ book The Vitamin D3 Miracle. If I haven’t convinced you, I am sure Jeff will. One of my favourite quotes from his brilliantly written work is, “Since the early 1980s, when doctors started warning us about too much sun, obesity rates in adult humans and many other diseases (including asthma and autism) have skyrocketed!”

During late autumn and winter, everyone in Great Britain needs to rely on dietary sources of vitamin D. The NHS states, “Since it is difficult for people to meet the 10 microgram recommendation from consuming foods naturally containing or fortified with vitamin D, people should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D in autumn and winter”. What I find very encouraging about this article, is that it is one of the first times I have seen the British government recommend the use of supplements. Let’s hope this is a change of tide to one of prevention rather than cure.

Sunbathing on beach