NOW THAT SUMMER HAS ARRIVED, SO HAVE TRIPS TO the beach or lake, lounging by the pool, and generally spending more time in the great outdoors. But gone are the days of baking in the sun for hours (often with liberal amounts of Coppertone oil and literally frying our skin), as I did in the ’80s. Many health-conscious people avoid spending time in the sun at all for fear of developing skin cancer, or else use sunscreens liberally. We’ve been told for years that if we spend any time outside, even in the winter months and on cloudy days, we should protect our skin by slathering ourselves with sunscreen. But it seems in the process, many of us have become dangerously low in vitamin D—a vitamin that recent studies show may be cancer-protective.
A recent study that analyzed data from 107 countries found that rates of pancreatic cancer were highest in countries with the least amount of sunlight—even after factors such as smoking and obesity were taken into account. Researchers speculate that low vitamin D levels could be the reason. There have been similar findings for other cancers. Vitamin D seems to benefit many other aspects of our health as well, such as boosting immunity and the ability to fight off infection, and (surprisingly) reducing risk of incontinence (see “Gotta Go?” on p. 28). Even our pets seem to benefit from the sunshine vitamin—one study found that pets with the highest vitamin D levels that were admitted to animal hospitals were most likely to survive serious illness.
Studies suggest that diet can go a long way in guarding against skin cancer, specifically the Mediterranean diet (see “The Healthy Skin Diet” on p. 56). This diet is high in fish, olive oil, fruits and vegetables, nuts, and it even includes red wine. One reason this diet may be protective is that fish, especially salmon and tuna, is rich in essential fatty acids and niacin (vitamin B3). This past May, a report presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology found that people who took niacinamide supplements reduced their risk of developing skin cancer by 23 percent.
When it comes to the sun, it seems that the best advice is moderation, as in most things. Enjoy time outside, but don’t burn. Most experts suggest 15 minutes per day of sunshine, with some parts of the skin exposed, such as legs and arms, avoiding peak hours (10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.). Use sunscreens if spending a lot of time in the sun (choose natural brands free of potentially dangerous chemicals). And be sure to take your vitamin D. Here’s to an amazing summer!