The Amazing Truth About The Sun And Your Health

By David Eifrig Jr. MD

I have just returned from an island off the coast of Georgia. The island is the easternmost piece of land in the state of Georgia. Luckily, we stayed just down the street from a great breakfast dive called "The Breakfast Club." This is a famous place and unique in many ways including the hours. When the chef (can you really call a short order cook that?) decides to close he closes. Today he closed at 12:30. Yesterday, he stayed open until 2:00. If you've ever spent much time on an island in the semi-tropics you'll find nooks and crannies with people like this..."living on island time."

As this summer comes to an end and the sunsets arrive earlier and earlier, I am reminded about those living either on an island or near a beach, and I truly begin to wonder about the sun and whether it is good for us. While walking the beach this week, I contemplated the hype about sunburns and skin cancer. How much SPF was I supposed to put on? How often? Should I really stay completely out of the sun at noon? When I realize how little of it makes sense, I know its time do some more research and then share my thoughts with you.

If you think about it, the sun and sunlight HAS TO BE HEALTHY for us. As it turns out, our bodies actually use the sunlight to produce chemicals that are highly critical in our body's function and our mental well-being. The sun's ultraviolet radiation, UV for short, comes in several different wavelengths of light. UV-B rays, the ones thought to burn, are the ones that trigger the production of the major chemical so critical to our health. The chemical is Vitamin D and it is critical in our kidney function, bone formation, blood pressure, immune system function, etc...

In actuality, it is not truly a vitamin since it can be made by human skin and thus need not be added to our diet. In fact, almost every cell in our body has a receptor for Vitamin D. More importantly, this vitamin is chemically a steroid called cholecalciferol, (aka Vitamin D3). It is produced in the skin and then converted to a long-lived molecule in the liver, and then finally into a short-lived active molecule 1,25-dihydroxycholecalciferol. The chemical is fat-soluble and, as such, could be consumed and stored in the body in excessive amounts if too much is taken in supplement form. One of its critical roles is in controlling the balance between calcium, phosphorous, and bone "remodeling." Some people think the reason fractures are so common in the elderly is due to decreased sunlight inside nursing homes and the hospital. I actually agree with this idea.

But back to the issues surrounding the sun. The hype surrounding sun and skin cancer is remarkable. Several high profile websites propagate the hype with phrases such as:

  1. "90% of skin cancers are preventable"
  2. "skin cancer is at epidemic proportions in the U.S."
  3. "well-known behaviors can reduce the risk"

Shamefully, they don't tell you how good the sun is for you or how harmful the chemicals are they recommend using to "prevent cancer." In fact, sunscreen does not even protect you from the form of skin cancer called melanoma -- the deadly skin cancer but also the least common. (Genetics play a huge role in this form of cancer and paradoxically the sun may help prevent it!)

Some of the chemicals in sunscreen include:

  1. Titanium dioxide -- absorbed into the skin --"a potential occupational carcinogen."
  2. Octyl methoxycinnamate -- kills mouse cells in much lower concentrations than those found in sunscreen.
  3. Benzophenone -- used in industrial processes to initiate chemical reactions -- a prolific producer of free-radicals
  4. 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor (4-MBC) --causes estrogen-like effects and developmental effects in animals
  5. Adimate-O -- is a nitrosamine, which are major players in stomach cancers
  6. Homosalate -- may cause aspirin (salicylate) poisoning
  7. Oxybenzone -- causes low sperm counts and liver toxicity in animals

What no one tells you is that most of the chemicals in sunscreens are as likely if not more so to do harm to your system than the sun itself. And the shocking news is that melanoma (the deadly skin cancer) is on the rise in the countries that have been increasing their use of sunscreens.

Even more proof that sun, skin cancer, and the hype about it is wrong can be found if you look at states that have the highest amount of sunlight and the highest incidence of melanoma (or vice versa) and guess what? The states' rankings don't correlate with each other. For example, Delaware, which is #3 on the highest incidence list, gets around 100 days of sunshine per year, whereas the #46 to #50 states (low incidence of cancer) receive around 100 days per year as well. Clearly the pathophysiology of skin cancer is poorly understood.

But more importantly I want to tout the fact that the SUN IS GOOD FOR YOU... there are many studies showing that exposure to the sun:

  1. decreases the risk of melanoma (a paradox for many)
  2. decreases the risk of colon cancer
  3. decreases the risk of breast cancer
  4. decreases the risk of ovarian cancer
  5. decreases the risk of prostate cancer
  6. decreases the risk of lymphoma
  7. decreases the risk of multiple sclerosis
  8. decreases depression in the winter
  9. causes a regression of solar keratoses

Now having said all this... I can tell you that if you have more than 50 moles on your body OR the moles that you do have are unusual in shape, size or color then you are at much greater risk and getting sun on those moles can trigger their transformation to cancer. Similarly if you are lighter skinned, red, or blonde-haired... then you are at increased risk (albeit small and the risk decreased with regular exposure to the sun for short periods of time).

What do I do?

  1. I try to get some sun on my body every day (my face is usually the most convenient during working hours).
  2. I try to not use sunscreen unless I am going to be outside for a much longer time than normally, for example a 3-4 hour period. In those times, I will use an SPF4 or less to reduce my exposure to these toxic chemicals. (The number represents the amount of "supposed protection," the higher the number the more chemicals)
  3. I also am very careful to NOT use sunscreen that has OMC (Octyl methoxycinnamate) -- I found a while ago that it causes a rash days after application and also seems to make me react to the sun with more redness than other sunscreens.
  4. Prior to any winter trip to a sunnier climate, I will stimulate my melanin producing cells (the ones that darken to give us a tan) by getting sunlight on my body (see #7) several times before going on the trip -- even if this means a few tanning-booth sessions. (Tanning booths however don't have the full spectrum of the suns rays, which could be both good and bad.)
  5. I am always careful to reduce the amount of sun I get during the peak burning times of 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., especially if I haven't been out much in the sun. I don't avoid this time but am just careful. For example, I usually put my convertible top up during this time.
  6. I try and wear sunglasses and a cap to reduce the amount of direct light to my eyes (there is a link to cataracts and other eye diseases), although I do make sure my eyes get some of that healthy daytime light by occasionally not wearing glasses during daylight hours. The eyes are connected to a bunch of brain structures related to sleep, happiness, body rhythms, etc...
  7. If it is the middle of winter and I'm feeling a little blue... in the middle of the day I try and find a nice warm brick wall, out of the wind, and just sit and get sunlight on my face and skin as much as possible...

It's such a simple thing that it doesn't seem very important. But... I look for simple, cheap, and safe things to improve the long-term quality of my life. Sunlight is one of those powerful healing sources. Don't feel guilty about the sun.

Here's to our health,

Dr. David Eifrig Jr.

Hey Llan,

I was wondering whether you could go over again with me the info. you were relating about skin cancer, sun-screen, etc. I was chatting with my friend Michelle from work, who is young (35) and last year underwent surgery for skin cancer on her forehead which resulted in losing one complete eyebrow. She'd be interested in any point of view about melanomas, etc.

Thanks, judit

Dear Judit,

Your inquiry about skin cancer and UV light propels me this morning to type in 6 pages of hand written stuff for adding to the book that I accumulated during my month on St John. So I don't have to repeat stuff from the book, taking your book to hand consider: Insert to middle of page 16:

We have been indoctorinated with an entire bogus construct concerning sunlight. Dr William Campbell Douglas says "Let's put it right up front so there's no confusion:

1) The sun does not cause melanoma or any other form of fatal cancer. Dermatologists warn that it does, but they have no scientific basis for the assertion. The real fact is, it is more likely that a lack of adequate sunlight is a strong factor to the development of melanoma. The sun is your friend, but like any good thing, using a little self-control makes it even better.

2) Sunscreen is detrimental to good health and should be avoided. There has been a dramatic rise in melanoma coupled with the use of sun blocking oils.

3) Sunglasses are also bad for your health unless you wear the full spectrum variety. The sun does not cause cataracts or other visual problems. The infra-red rays from incandescent light bulbs are probably the main cause of cataracts. Use full spectrum fluorescent lights in your home or office."

For a wavelength to 'burn' it means over-exposure to the tolerances of the body for that specific wave-length. Our body can stand great quantities of and variability of exposure to radiation in the ranges of the visible spectrum. At both edges of this visible wavelength band is where intolerances, particularly in the epidermal layer, reveal themselves. Wavelengths of ultraviolet not normally visible 'burn' the skin when it's too much, at the same time the invisible wavelengths of ultra-violet are an essential nutrient in the body's production of Vitamin D.

Melanomas tend to appear on parts of the body not especially exposed to sunlight. They tend to be thicker and more advanced when found on hidden areas of the body. They can be obscured by hair and by a lack of pigmentation. My mother's upper-thigh melanoma in her 70's she said was as large as half a grapefruit.

Almost all the contributory damage to the skin that might induce non-melanoma skin cancer from the sun occurs in childhood and early adulthood - my doctor said the many basal cell carcinoma skin cancers I burned off from the second epidermal layer of my face with something called Effudex after he had frozen off several over years take 26 years to develop. People over 70 do not need to have concern for anything other than getting enough UVB sun to achieve and maintain healthy Vitamin D levels, which is harder to do the older you get, and are much more likely to die from Vitamin D deficiency-related hip fracture due to osteoporosis than from skin cancer. It is almost impossible to get enough Vitamin D from diet.

Until the mid 1990's it was believed that the kidneys make the body's entire supply of activated Vitamin D from the 25-Vitamnin D created by the liver out of the Vitamin D made in the skin after sun exposure and, to a lesser extent, from foods that supply Vitamin D. The supply from the kidneys that was thought to contribute to bone health is actually small and doesn't change however much 25-Vitamin D there is in the bloodstream. It is now understood that a variety of cells have this ability to activate Vitamin D, including the breast, prostate, colon, brain, skin and probably most other tissues and cells, where it is converted and used on the spot without increasing the activated Vitamin D in the blood stream, making difficulties for scientists to detect the connections between sun exposure and Vitamin D.

We now know that sun exposure has a role in preventing auto-immune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes, osteoporosis and that it promotes bone health. Discovering that cells throughout the body can activate Vitamin D is a major breakthrough in Vitamin D research. Also discovered is that not only the brain makes 'feel good' endorphins, when exposed to ultraviolet radiation the skin also makes beta endorphins.

All of us over age one need to get at least 1000 IU of Vitamin D every day. Most of us need only a few minutes a day sun exposure during the summer months to maintain hea;lthy Vitamin D levels throughout the year! About half of the amount of UVB exposure it would take to begin to turn your particular skin pink equals approximately 1000 IU of Vitamin D. Vitamin D is stored in your body fat and released in winter when you need it. 1000 IU or 25,000 nanograms can also be found in a pound of cooked eel or 40 eggs, 10 cups of fortified milk (with the danger of too much calcium), 10 oz salmon or mackerel, 7 1/2 lbs of fortified dried cereal. How about anchovies?

Neither Vitamin D rich foods nor supplements will cause your body to produce the feel-good substances such as beta-endorphins and serotonin, which create the feeling of well being you feel after being in the sun (or using a proper UVB tanning facility). Unlike Vitamin D supplements, which can cause toxicity especially if overdone with children, sun exposure cannot cause toxicity.

Pg 16: Serotonin production is directly related to the duration of exposure to sunlight (Lancet 2002). The book continues with aspects of cytoluminescent therapy, to which is added mid pg 17:

Since first evolved to treat polio virus in the early 1930's, ultraviolet blood irradiation raises the resistance of the host and is therefore able to control many disease processes of apparently unrelated etiology. UBI has never caused any adverse side effects or complications. Researchers in Russia (current listings of world medical literature contain over 110 articles, all from soviet literature) have used this process to treat HIV with impressive results.

My good friend Michael, folklore collector and singer, spent much of his energy the last two years of anguished debilitation similar to chronic fatigue syndrome researching and seeking medical help for what was ultimately concluded to be lyme disease or tick fever. At end resort he sought a clinic established by his brother in the midwest for the specific purpose of reintroducing the Knott Technique of ultraviolet blood irradiation using machines developed by E K Knott and used with excellent results in the 1930s 40s and 50s for the treatment of a wide variety of conditions. A half dozen treatments totally restored Michael to himself as he and we know him, after everything else proposed by doctors up and down the East Coast had failed to produce any change.