Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sunshine of Your Love Part 1: Safely Getting What You Need

The sun is here again, hopefully to stay.  My cats, eternal sun worshipers, show their devotion as they migrate room to room chasing its rays throughout the day.  Nothing quite mimics that swaddling warmth of the sun.

A la Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "Winter changed into spring, spring changed into summer, summer changed back into winter, and winter gave spring and summer a miss and went straight on into autumn... until one day... " the sun came back and Summer-Spring was here.  The days are sunny and warm flitting back and forth between spring chilly and summer hot.  And with the sun comes CANCER, or so I have been taught.

Okay, knee-deep in research and trying to craft a post scrolling out to book length, I decided to attack this topic in parts.  One part is NEVER enough to say what I want to say and really educate you or my own self about nutrition issues as important as this.  So I'll save you the reading and try to make this as user-friendly and as concise as possible.

Today, let's give the meat: what you need to do to protect yourself from CANCER while still getting what you need, precious vitamin D, a vitamin-hormone essential to your inner workings and protective against cancer.  I'll go into specifics another day, but suffices to say it's IMPORTANT STUFF.  Even if cancer doesn't fall from the sky, those pesky cancer-causing UV rays do, who on one hand they activate your skin cells to synthesize vitamin D while on the other they damage your DNA, which spawns its own two hands: on one DNA damage causes your skin cells to produce more protective melanin to absorb the harmful UV and on the other hand it produces free radicals and oxidative damage that increases risk of cancer.  So as this four-armed creature we've created illustrates, it's complicated.

But I am really curious about what I should do about all this, as I imagine you are too unless you know everything about everything.

From my research, here are my friendly suggestions (and remember I am no Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy, so this is just my two cents):
take 5,000 IU per day for 2–3 months, then obtain a 25-hydroxyvitamin D test. Adjust your dosage so that blood levels are between 50–80 ng/mL (or 125–200 nM/L) year-round.
  • Find "natural" sunscreens that DON'T contain these harmful (if not toxic) chemicals:  
octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC)
butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane
para amino benzoic acid
octyl salicyclate
padimate O
menthyl anthranilate
trolamine salicyclate
titanium dioxide  
4-Aminobenzoic acid (also known as para-aminobenzoic acid or PABA) 
  • Use sunscreen with zinc oxide, which seems like a safe ingredient.  Rules: Apply 15-30 minutes before sun exposure, then reapply after 15-30 minutes of sun exposure.  Afterwards, only reapply as needed due to sweating, swimming, rubbing it off.  
  • If you do have to use commercial sunscreen, wash it off with soap as soon as possible after sun exposure.  The chemicals can leach into your skin and produce free radicals with exposure to the sun.  So, in fact, the sunscreen supposedly protecting you from skin cancer can actually lead to skin cancer itself.  Great!
  • If trying to synthesize vitamin D from the midday sun: expose as much of your skin as possible.   Cover up your skin after you've had only enough exposure to turn pink (NOT red).  And DON'T wash your skin or go swimming until at least an hour after exposure to absorb the vitamin D.  DON'T rely on this as the only way to get your vitamin D unless you validate that assumption with a vitamin D test.  Note: the UVB rays you need to synthesize vitamin D are most intense at midday and vary by time of year and latitude, so don't go sunbathing at 8am in the winter and expect to get your vitamin D!
  • Avoid overexposure during the midday sun.  Even with "protection" this is dancing-around-in-your-underwear-and-pink-dress-shirt kind of Risky Business.  While some types of skin cancer are clearly blocked by UVB-blocking sunscreen, melanoma (the Big Bad) confounds researchers by showing up in those who have used adequate sunscreen or who avoid UVB rays.  Even "broad spectrum" sunscreen may not block enough.  
  • Use high SPF and follow the directions for recommended amount.  SPF provides a multiplier for how much time it takes you to burn.  Me?  I'm a zero to 15 sort of girl ;) so I shoot for high numbers and usually try to find baby sunscreen that won't sting in my eyes and is supposedly more "gentle."  You'll be happy to know that many paleo/primal eaters (like this one) have seen an increase in the time it takes them to burn now that they are on clean fuel.  According to Mark's Daily Apple, the difference between SPF diminishes with higher numbers so that while an SPF of 30 is blocking 96.7% of UVB radiation, an SPF 50 is blocking 98% and an SPF 100 is blocking 99% (so keep that in mind when you price-shop).  And if you don't apply the required amount, you don't get the protection: using half of what is recommended does not mean you get half the protection--in fact you get much less.  In reality, there are so many factors to take into account that the higher the better (to a point), but don't bank on that number actually panning out.   
  • Eat plenty of veggies (and some fruit is okay too, especially berries) for antioxidants that decrease free radicals and their damage.  Specifically, there is evidence of carotenoids protecting against sunburn, especially with vitamin E (found in nuts).  
  • For dietary sources of vitamin D, eat plenty of fish, especially oily fish and salt water fish.  Eat whole eggs--the vitamin D (along with all the other nutrients) are in the yolk.  If your diet includes dairy, enjoy full fat dairy from pastured, grass-fed animals--preferably raw. 
  • Take a vitamin D3 supplement from an animal source (NO D2 is NOT the same thing and you can't get D3 from a vegan source) and have it with fat.  How much D3 do you need to take?  Get tested (and see our first bullet point).  One caveat, and one I am wrestling with myself, is that we are trying to get away from processed foods and supplementation introduces another processed food into our diet.  Is it a necessary evil?  Looks like you can get vitamin D3 from fish oil and from sheep's wool.  Either way it is processed and unfortunately my fish oil brand doesn't tell me the vitamin D content, so I use a separate D3 supplement from sheep's wool.  An article entitled "Vitamin D and Milk" by Professor Norman at UC Riverside (emphasis mine) explains the production process:
The commercial production of vitamin D3 is completely dependent on the availability of either 7-dehydrocholesterol or cholesterol. 7-Dehydrocholesterol can be obtained via organic solvent extraction of animal skins (cow, pig or sheep) followed by an extensive purification. Cholesterol typically is extracted from the lanolin of sheep wool and after thorough purification and crystallization can be converted via a laborious chemical synthesis into 7-dehydrocholesterol. It should be appreciated that once chemically pure, crystalline 7-dehydrocholesterol has been obtained, it is impossible to use any chemical or biological tests or procedures to determine the original source (sheep lanolin, pig skin, cow skin, etc.) of the cholesterol or 7-dehydrocholesterol.
Next the crystalline 7-dehydrocholesterol is dissolved in an organic solvent and irradiated with ultraviolet light to carry out the transformation (similar to that which occurs in human and animal skin) to produce vitamin D3. This vitamin D3 is then purified and crystallized further before it is formulated for use in dairy milk and animal feed supplementation. The exact details of the chemical conversion of cholesterol to 7-dehydrocholesterol and the method of large-scale ultraviolet light conversion into vitamin D3 and subsequent purification are closely held topics for which there have been many patents issued (2).
So there you have it.  Nice and neat.  This discussion is not over, but I encourage you to ask if you have questions and seek out more information through the links given above and below.  Happy sunshining!

Resources used: 
Dr. Mercola's sunscreen information (NOTE: he is trying to sell sunscreen and bug spray, so there is definitely a "pitch," but I tried to fact check everything I used.)
Weston Price Foundation's The Miracle of Vitamin D article


  1. Do you have any suggestions for sunscreen?

  2. Hi Paleotron,
    Good question! In the article I mentioned zinc oxide, so that is a good choice--any sunscreen with that and none of the chemicals to avoid. Dr. Mercola sells one that fits the bill, I also found this site listing 14 natural sunscreens that *should* work if you check them carefully:
    One person who commented on that article said the Badger, California Baby, and Alba aren't great, but the Purple Prairie one rubbed in "beautifully." The thickness and visibility after application is something to think about with these alternative suncreeens/sunblocks.

    Here are others with only zinc oxide as the active ingredient:

    I doubt many of these brands will be in the regular supermarket or drugstore, but if they protect you and don't harm you, I think it's worth the effort to find them. Good hunting!

  3. Here is another article I just found with some alternatives to sunscreen. It's a good read:

  4. Wow, you're a wealth of information. I'll check these out! Thanks, Kristy!

  5. Kristy, Awesome post! Thank you. When I live in Santa Cruz I developed Malasma on my face, practically looked like I was wearing a mask on my face. Got treatments to lighten it and then was told to start using epicuren products, especially the extreme sunscreen on my face. Rain or shine I always wear it. My spots are hardly noticeable now that I am eating totally clean and using this cream. Can't wait for the side-dish post! :-) Extreme Sunscreen Cream

  6. There are a lot of correlations but no proof in this arena - and there likely never will be. This is not a topic that is well subjected to intervention trials. I still have a hard time buying all the panic about sun exposure, nor am I convinced yet that sunscreens are a net benefit. I'm willing to buy the idea that sun burns are bad.

    I boil it down to this, for me, right now: cancers naturally occur in humans, paleolithic or neolithic, but in one group the cancers don't grow and kill humans, and in the other group they do. Why do we succumb to cancers, whereas the paleolithic folks die with cancers but not from them? I don't buy the sun argument, but I would buy the carbohydrate hypothesis model, summarized thus:
    High carb diets provide an ideal environment for cancers to thrive and metastacize by sustaining high levels of blood sugar (which cancers feast on to greater degrees than normal cells) and by sustaining high levels of both insulin and insuling like growth factor - cancers have more receptors for these hormones than does normal tissue.

    This is nothing more than conjecture - but so are all the warnings about sun exposure and skin cancer!

    If my conjecture is correct, by maintaining a paleolithic 'blood sugar pattern' through a paleo diet, intermittent fasting and not-excessive oxidative training, we will tip the scales away from skin cancers from sun exposure, just as we tip the scales away from the majority of the other cancers.

    BUT - this is a long way from proven, and each of us "pays your money and takes your chances."

  7. Great points, Paul! I like the transition you make from our knowledge that sugar feeds cancer to the possible explanation for why cancer is killing us, as opposed to paleolithic humans. However, how do we know that cancer was prevalent just not deadly amongst paleolithic humans? I imagine some might show up on bones... I am interested to learn more.

    Whatever is at work, clean eating definitely makes a difference, just like Josephine from the Nutty Kitchen added. Thank you, Josephine, for the personal experience success story and what product you use. From a brief look, they seem mostly natural with some chemicals I can't pronounce. My research into vitamin D and the sun have made me more aware of what I never even gave a thought to before: what I put on my skin. I am just on the verge of a product purge. There is no reason I should be putting things on my skin (the largest and most exposed organ) that I cannot pronounce and that I have no idea where they came from. Perhaps some plant-based ingredients are just as bad (as our diet makes clear, NOT everything from nature is nourishing!) and they are probably just as processed, but at least it's a step in the right direction, at least for me.