Sunlight may be a rare commodity if you live in the UK but I’m going to enlighten you (see what I did there?) on the benefits of sunlight – and the risks writes Dr Julia Sen.

The UV (ultraviolet) wavelengths in sunlight on our skin stimulate the production of vitamin D. Right now the scientific community is investigating the link between vitamin D deficiency and the risk of more severe Covid-related illness. Current UK guidelines recommend 20 to 30 minutes of sunlight exposure on the face and forearms 2-3 times per week for fair skinned individuals, however,  people of colour require longer exposure because their more plentiful melanin pigment acts as a sunscreen. This would have protected their ancestors’ skin from sun damage in a hot, sunny climate but in the land of the long white cloud it can predispose to vitamin D deficiency. Also at risk are frail, elderly people, unable to get outside enough to keep their levels topped up. According to research published in 2007 in the Journal of the American Society for Clinical Nutrition, 50% of adults in the UK have insufficient levels of vitamin D, of whom 16% are severely deficient in Winter and Spring. Rates were highest from the Midlands, northward, as you might expect.

Why does sunshine make us feel happy?

Believe it or not, our brains are programmed to love sunshine. As the wavelengths of sunlight are transmitted from our eyes through the visual pathway to the back of the brain where vision is processed, it stimulates the production of endorphins, those feel good hormones that make us happy to be alive. We evolved to crave the sun because it is essential for our health. We not only need it for growth and maintenance of our bones but it is intricately involved in many other systems too – in fact vitamin D deficiency is thought to play a role in disorders as diverse as diabetes, certain cancers and even multiple sclerosis. Its association with depression may be the reason why many of us feel a little, in the post Christmas period (even if we’re not going dry for January!).

The circadian rhythm is our body’s daily internal clock. All of our growth, repair and maintenance functions are tightly scheduled within each cycle. Blue light, which is at its highest levels in the morning, tells our brains to wake up and adjusts the clock to keep everything in sync. This is the reason we feel so unwell when jet-lagged by travel or working night shifts.

So we should all be basking in the sun, right?

Well……no. There are downsides of sun exposure……

UV damage is the main risk factor for premature skin ageing (photoageing) but more sinister is the risk of skin cancer, the prevalence of which has been increasing to epidemic proportions in the last few decades in the UK. This is likely to be in part due to the influence of holidays in hot climates, outdoor pursuits (cycling, golf, gardening etc.) and the popularity of sunbeds – which I urge you never to use!

In my clinical practice I treat patients with facial skin cancer on a daily basis. Treatment involves surgically removing the tumour and plastic surgery to repair the resulting gap. I strive to ensure that my patients are not only cured of their cancer but are also happy with their appearance – but why take the risk? Why not practice sun safety?!

It’s all about balance.

It is possible to test levels of vitamin D in your blood and if you might want to discuss this with your GP. I also recommend including in your diet foods which contain bioavailable (easy to absorb) vitamin D.

Vitamin D rich foods include:-
  • Oily fish (salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, fresh tuna)
  • Red meat
  • Liver
  • Egg yolks
  • Fat spreads
  • Fortified breakfast cereals

Vitamin D is fat soluble, so those following very low fat diets are also at risk of deficiency.

The current UK guidelines from the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommend everyone over 4 years of age take 10 micrograms (400 IU) daily between October and early March, however those spending little time outdoors (many more of us during the pandemic) should be taking it year round. Vitamin D3 supplements are available without prescription from pharmacies, health food stores, supermarkets and online. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic those who fall into the ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ category are eligible for free NHS supplementation.

For my skin cancer patients, and for those (like me) wishing to avoid skin photoageing and the risk of future skin cancer I recommend:-

Daily sunscreen application of minimum SPF 30 (for UVB) and a UVA block on face, neck and décolletage come rain or shine, for example, iS Clinical Eclipse SPF 50.

Vitamin D supplementation daily – minimum 25mcg (1000 IU) but no more than 100mcg (4000 IU)

Vitamin B3 (Nicotinamide) 500mg twice daily (available online)

Now that Winter is finally coming to an end, we can look forward to warmer, sunnier days and hopefully being able to enjoy it with our loved ones once again but right now, looking out of my window at this beautiful sunny March morning, I’ve decided I’m going to put on my walking boots and my factor 50 (natch) and get my triple happiness shot – fresh air, exercise and sunshine!

I hope your day brings you sunshine and happiness too!


Julia x


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