Health Hack #40 - A Perspective On Sunscreen
Since the very beginning of language and oral traditions, we know that the sun has been upheld with the highest of reverence. Helios, in Greek Mythology, reigned as the God of Sun. The most useful and ubiquitous facilitator of life across so many species, trying to envision a world without the sun is like trying to picture our planet without gravity. Everything about our existence would change, if it existed at all.
Reverence for the sun is seen throughout all walks of life. Whether it’s a flock of chickens crowing at its appearance and hitting the hay once it sets, or the seed learning to sprout with its help, nature worships the sun, as it rightfully should.
As we learned way back when this weekly article series began (Vitamin D), a key building block of our good health is derived from Vitamin D, which is most appropriately found in our exposure to sunlight. Our immune system is heavily dependent on this free, highly available vitamin, and there have been links drawn between Vitamin D deficiency and propensity towards more dire health ramifications for those affected with COVID-19. “Cold season”, as our winter is often referred to (double entendre), uncoincidentally coincides with a drastic reduction in Vitamin D exposure, which effectively tatters the armor of our immune system. Seasonal Affective Disorder follows the same premise. Does it spike in the dead of summer? No, it’s actually directly correlated to a severe drop in sunlight.
Appropriate amounts of sun exposure should really be as paramount to our health as quality sleep. The key, though, lies in the quantity.
In the context of heat exposure (The Power of Heat) we used the term hormesis, which is that a moderate exposure to something could prove wildly beneficial, while crossing a very fine line - if only a little bit - could prove quite dangerous. There is arguably no subject in the realm of our physical well being where the concept of hormesis is more applicable than to our sun exposure. Sans sunscreen, lounge in the afternoon summer sun in a bathing suit for 15-20 minutes, and unless you’re abnormally fair-skinned, you’ll easily bank your daily recommended Vitamin D absorption benchmark without the risk of side effects. But fall asleep on the beach on a sunny July afternoon (again, without sunscreen) and awaken an hour or more later, chances are you’re in serious trouble.
The premise of sunscreen makes sense. Burning of our skin equates to cellular and tissue damage, regardless of the degree of the burns. Products that shield us from these ill-effects are seemingly beneficial. We apply them, and suddenly that nap on the beach is devoid of the redness and irritation that can last for days. But is this really in line with Mother Nature’s design?
How does one know their hormetic threshold to overdoing their sun exposure? In other words, devoid of sunscreens entirely, when does one know when to call it quits on the beach, or at least head for intermittent shade or cover themselves with clothing or towels? It’s super simple. They burn. Folks of Irish descent, naturally fair-skinned, having derived from a cooler, cloudier climate, will likely have a lower threshold. Descendants of regions closer to the equator will likely tolerate a higher limit of sun, having evolved to do so. But for everyone, regardless of their skin tone and melanin-producing capabilities, there is a very distinct threshold. When we apply sunscreen, we’re able to linger in full sun for prolonged periods of time without the risk of visible burning, drastically pushing that threshold outwards until the needle on our tolerance scale has shifted five-twentyfold. This would seem to be a magnificent hack, no? In some ways, yes - it absolutely is. But we shouldn’t lose sight of Mother Nature’s stubbornness, because she’s often unwilling to compromise.
Let’s consider an analogy. Suppose there was a supplement that one could take which significantly down-regulated the behavioral and neurological effects of excessive alcohol. Beer lovers could down a 12-pack of their go to IPA over the course of an afternoon BBQ on a hot summer day, and with the addition of a single pill, they would never become obnoxious or belligerent, and they would be perfectly competent to drive home. To properly evaluate the benefits, we must consider all factors. Personality doesn’t change, which at some point is generally a benefit (there’s no denying that certain personalities can improve with some alcohol in the correct setting, but even these folks can see themselves derailed when imbibing too aggressively). Neurological conditions remain centered. It’s hard to deny immense benefit here. But what about the health of the liver? Oh yea, there’s that to consider too. Physiologically, the supplement doesn’t provide any protection.
Take someone who really loves beer. A full-fledged gastronaut. They drink for the flavor of the hops, not necessarily chasing the state of drunkenness that comes with it. For this individual, the magical supplement would likely prove disastrous. We’ve stripped away Mother Nature’s warning signal that says “enough’s enough - you can barely even stand up, dude!”. They’d likely rip through a 12-pack every chance they had, insidiously destroying their organs as a result.
Now take the individual who drinks socially, but doesn’t socialize all that often. Their tolerance is lower, which compels them to cross the line much faster than they’d like. Maybe they’re throwing them back once a month, on that big Saturday night in the city. For this person, the supplement is a wonder-drug. Low tolerance leads to overconsumption which leads to a wicked hangover. Take all of these concerns and throw them out the window. They can let loose on Saturday night and still have the energy and headspace to hit their 8am hot yoga class on Sunday morning. What about their liver? It certainly takes a hit, but overdoing it once a month is manageable in the long term.