In honour of UV Safety Month, we are talking about how the sun affects our skin and our health, and how eating certain foods can protect us from the damage of excess sun exposure.
It is not just plants that absorb and metabolize sunlight. Human beings do it too. You can experience first hand how much better you feel after being out for a walk on a sunny day, and how it nourishes and energizes you almost immediately. However, the relationship between sun exposure and human health isn’t simple. Genes expressed as skin pigmentation affects how much UV radiation your skin absorbs, an adaptation made as generational migrations of humans moved away from the equator. The timing and duration of exposure is also a crucial factor. Ideally the best sunlight to get is at sunrise and sunset, as the light wavelengths at these times have the biggest impact on brain centers that regulate our circadian clock, our mood and alertness.
How does the sun benefit humans?
We can see how sunlight affects the health of the general population. People who spend lots of time outdoors each day, how humans evolved to live, have better overall health and wellness. Those who now spend much of their time indoors under fluorescent lights in front of blue light screens have greater tendencies towards depression, anxiety and insomnia, amongst other health issues.
When sunlight touches our skin it stimulates the production of vitamin D in our bodies. Vitamin D is vital to human health as it regulates absorption of two of our major minerals, calcium and phosphorus. We need phosphorus to build strong bones, but it is also needed for the body to make protein for the growth, maintenance, and repair of each and every cell in the body. Calcium is necessary for nerve function, and therefore all muscle contractions, including the heart. We also need it for proper enzyme function, the catalysts for all processes in our bodies. We store these nutrients in our bones and without enough of them our bones become weak.
It is largely because of these factors that getting out in the sun regularly means lower blood pressure, a better functioning brain, better mood, more healthy cell growth, better skin and enhanced immune system function, including regulation of autoimmune conditions.
Yes, sunshine has many benefits, but due to changing environmental conditions, in no small part due to human activity, too much of a good thing could mean danger to our health. After all, overexposure to UV light is still the number one cause of skin cancer. So now we need to ask ourselves, how can we reap the longevity benefits of those golden rays without all the skin damage?
How can you be safe in the sun?
There are obvious protocols like: avoiding being out in direct sunlight in the hottest parts of the day, wearing UV resistant clothing and hats, using safe sunscreens like zinc oxide when you are outdoors during these hours, and sticking to patches of shade whenever possible. However, it is not always possible, and then there are some people, myself included, who still love to get a natural sunkissed glow. It’s always good to have a back up plan, and when it comes to your skin it’s no exception. This is why we propose you also protect your skin from the inside out by eating certain healthy foods to increase your skin’s resistance to damage, aging, and even cancer.
How do plants avoid getting a sunburn?
Plants have their own built-in protection against the damaging effects of the sun. When you eat these plants, you assimilate those protective compounds which can have the same effect in your body. Many plants use a group of chemicals called sinapate esters. These are aromatic compounds sitting in the upper cell layers of these plants’ leaves that defend against the sun, while still allowing light absorption for photosynthesis. Sinapic acid shows antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti‐inflammatory, anticancer, and anti‐anxiety activity and is very abundant in brassica leaves (like kale, bok choy, cabbage and mustard greens). Closely related natural substances called cinnamates are equally as effective, and are already used widely in sunblocks. They are found in large quantities in galangal rhizomes, sweet basil leaves and cumin seeds.
Other antioxidant phytonutrients (such as carotenoids, flavonoids and cucrcumoids) help boost your skin’s natural ability to protect itself by stimulating the synthesis of melanin and by chasing away free radicals caused by UV rays. They cruise around the body searching for free radicals so that they can neutralize them before they damage the tissues. This antioxidant protection allows the skin cells to regenerate new healthy cells and reduce your risk from skin cancer, sun spots and wrinkles. Carotenoids are abundant in orange plant foods like carrots, winter squashes, tomatoes, and bell peppers. Flavonoids are in most of the plant foods we eat, but are particularly abundant in citrus fruits, apples, kale, onions, and berries. Curcumoids are abundant in turmeric, which is very anti-inflammatory and soothing on our tissues. For more on specific plant foods to help protect your skin from the sun, be sure to check out this month’s blog recipe for Sunscreen Salad!
The sun doesn’t need to be scary. It’s just important to remember that like everything, it is all too easy to get too much of a good thing. However, if you can focus on preventing damage before it begins by hydrating your body and eating a diet filled with fresh, living plant foods that offer an abundance of moisturizing, soothing and regenerating properties you’ll carry a healthy glow with you all summer long!