Sunshine has been in short supply in the northeast this summer. When it has shone it’s sunny face, I have returned to a habit of youth; sunbathing. I grew up in the era of baby oil and Coppertone (remember those ads?). Just as the generation prior to mine can say they were ignorant of the dangers of smoking, those of us who grew up in the seventies never gave skin cancer or premature aging a thought.
In my mid-twenties, I cut my sun exposure to almost zip. At the age of thirty, as a by-product of many sunny summers growing up in Colorado, I had a basal cell skin cancer removed from my lower back. No more “laying out” under the mid-day sun for me.
That is, until this summer. A combination of “what, me worry?” borne of my terminal cancer status (and you thought there were no perks) as well as a growing awareness of the importance of vitamin D in the fight against cancer.
And now a short commercial break: I was working on this blog, when I happened to look out the window and noticed this “herd” of dragon flies cruising at a low altitude over our lawn. Remember the bats and the schools of fish (see Greetings from Austin)? Here was an opportunity to put myself in the midst of a large group of wild animals! I booked it to the backyard, located a choice spot, and just stood there. Momentarily distracted by my arrival, they soon resumed their feeding. I had dragonflies buzzing all around me! This is what sustains me, and makes me so unbelievably glad that I’m still at this party. I tell you, life is so cool!
But I (happily, giddily even) digress. Back to vitamin D and one of it’s primary sources, the sun. Several studies in the past few years have correlated higher vitamin D levels with both a reduced risk of lung cancer as well as a greater rate of survival. Recent research has also shown that lung cancer cells can destroy vitamin D. So it would seem pretty obvious to me that all of us, and particularly those of us with cancer, should be paying attention to our vitamin D intake.
There are dietary sources of vitamin D: fish, liver and egg yolks. However, it is difficult (and possibly unpleasant) to get the suggested daily amount of vitamin D from food alone. The new recommendations are for a minimum of 1000 IUs (International Units) per day. A daily supplement is a possible solution, but it is important to remember that ingesting too much vitamin D can be dangerous–so never assume that if some is good, more is better. The easiest way to achieve optimal levels is to spend 15-20 minutes per day out in the sun before applying sunscreen. According to David Servan-Schreiber, the author of Anti cancer, A New Way of Life, “…twenty minutes of noon-day sun exposure to the entire body provides between 8,000 and 10,000 IUs”.
Again, moderation is key. It is not possible to overdose on vitamin D from sunshine, but it is prudent to worry about skin cancer. No need to prematurely age either: I worked in a nursing home one summer and one of my jobs was to bathe the elderly residents. I got to see up close and personal the difference between skin that has seen too much sun and skin which has always been protected, and I can assure you that it is possible to skip the wrinkles almost entirely.
I was curious as to whether or not tanning beds could be a source of vitamin D. The answer is yes, but not a safe source. It has recently been shown that repeated use of tanning beds before the age of 30 corresponds to a 75% increase in risk of skin cancer. Time for tanning beds to go the way of leaf blowers (what…we still have leaf blowers?).
I believe a brief daily sun bath is not only the most natural way to take my vitamin D, but also the most pleasant. And, just like walking, it’s free. What a perfect world.