Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Ain’t No Sunshine In My Life

I’ve been avoiding the sun for years, having contracted skin cancer half a dozen times. My doctors have warned me about its deleterious effects, and I took them seriously. Still do. And yet…

Most if not all of us feel better in the summer than in the winter. We are closely tied to the sun’s light and we get much more of that in the summer months, so we of course tend to feel happier and less anxious when the sun’s rays are plentiful.

For some of us, the seasonal mood swings can be pretty extreme. These folks can become almost manic in the summertime and suffer severe depression in winter. This condition is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD).

I’ve noticed that I seem to have a mild case myself, which has gotten slightly worse as I’ve aged. This year, my brother got me a happy light that I began using to alleviate the symptoms of SAD. I’m not sure if it’s helping but at least it isn’t hurting (except perhaps in raising my electric bill by a few dollars).

And it’s not just mood. It’s pretty well established that the farther you get from the equator, the greater the chances you’ll have high blood pressure, suffer from heart disease or experience a stroke, particularly in the darker months of the year.

Further, some studies have shown that the sun may not be the enemy we think it is when we’re considering skin cancer. Most of us need sun exposure to get sufficient amounts of vitamin D (which we get from the sun’s ultraviolet B rays) because we don’t get enough of it from dietary sources like fatty fish and fortified milk. We need vitamin D to keep bones strong and help prevent certain kinds of cancer.

Sun angle plays a huge role. In the winter, if you live north of 36 degrees from the equator, you can’t get enough ultraviolet B rays to allow your body to produce vitamin D. Even during the rest of the year, if your shadow is longer than your body height, you can’t make vitamin D.

So you want to try to get at least 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure a day in spring, summer and fall during peak hours (10:00 – 3:00) to allow your body to make vitamin D. And you should try to get that exposure to your arms, legs, abdomen and back – not your face or the top of your ears because those areas already get too much sun exposure. But avoid getting burned because that’s what increases your risk for skin cancers.

As for tanning, it may actually be beneficial even though medical professionals have been warning against the practice for years. Tanning increases your body’s ability to ward off sunburn, so even though it will prematurely age your skin, it may help ward off melanomas.

Consider how we evolved, living outdoors for thousands of years with very little skin cancer compared to today. There are lots of reasons for that, of course, but one is that we sit inside for much longer periods, and when we do go outside, we tend to overdo it and get burned.

Today’s lesson: Perhaps we shouldn’t worry quite so much about the sun. And perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so certain we know the truth.

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