I asked the man strolling on the beach why he was wearing a life jacket. Trying to be patient, he explained, “My goodness, don’t you know the ocean is dangerous? Millions drown every year.”

He’s right. The ocean can be a very dangerous place and requires great respect. I encouraged him to learn a little about the actual risks of certain activities so he wouldn’t feel so threatened. Understanding and respect are different than blind fear. This analogy also applies to our attitudes toward the sun.

We often hear, “Avoid the sun’s harmful rays,” “stay inside,” and “protect yourself against the sun’s damaging rays.” Is our sun really out to get us, or is there more to the story?

These warnings have some truth to them, but they also are incomplete. The ocean sustains life on this planet, yet can kill you depending on your actions. You can learn to swim, fish or skipper a boat. You can safely row across the Atlantic given adequate preparation. Similarly, you can safely enjoy the sun’s benefits while minimizing risk. The man on the beach probably doesn’t need to wear a life jacket, and we probably don’t need to hide from the sun.

According to my research, the sun and the human race have happily coexisted for a really, really long time. I googled it. Sunshine is both life-giving and potentially dangerous. Our skin does have built-in protections, but these take time to deploy. Humans who have lived near the equator for eons are born with ample protective melanin in their skin. Others that hail from the north don’t need so much protection and are lighter in color.

For us northerners everything is dandy, until you move south or take a tropical vacation. The sudden increase in the sun’s intensity causes problems.

Sunlight offers myriad types of light essential to life. Humans see only a small portion of the spectrum. Outside what we see are energy waves that warm us, help plants grow and improve our health. Yes that’s right, the sun’s “damaging ultraviolet rays” also are healthy.

So, how do we get the healthy part while minimizing the harmful part?

We require UV light to synthesize vitamin D. Vitamin D is noteworthy because it prevents skin cancer and has many other important properties. Optimal levels of vitamin D help prevent 17 types of cancer, hypertension and other cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, autoimmune diseases and influenza, including COVID-19. Optimal levels of vitamin D also improve moods, immune function in many ways, and inflammation. That’s all very important.

Dr. Cedric Garland, an epidemiologist known for his research in the field of vitamin D deficiency, calculates that adequate vitamin D levels would prevent 600,000 cases of breast and colorectal cancer every year. Dr. William Grant, a NASA atmospheric physicist, was one of the first to recognize vitamin D’s protective benefits. He believes more than 50,000 American lives would be spared yearly, 30% of cancer deaths would be prevented and cancers of the skin, prostate and lung would be halved.

The Journal of Investigative Dermatology found that sun exposure has an inverse relationship to melanoma risk, by far the most deadly skin cancer. Surprisingly, office workers have much more melanoma than outdoor workers.

Experts point out that skin cancer rates are rising the past 50 years, about the time we started hiding from the sun and using sunscreen. They ask, “If sunscreen worked we would see less skin cancer, but instead we are seeing more.” Trustworthy sources such as The Lancet, The British Journal of Dermatology and the Cochrane Collaboration find that sunscreen use doesn’t reduce deaths from skin cancer.

The relationship between skin cancer and sunshine doesn’t fit into a one-sentence soundbite. You don’t need to fear the sun, or the ocean — but there certainly are times for precaution. There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma. BCC and SCC account for about 99% of skin cancer cases, and are important to treat, but rarely cause death. Melanoma accounts for about 1% of cases but causes 75% of skin cancer deaths. Optimal vitamin D levels protect against melanoma in many ways. The key is to get plenty of vitamin D but not too much sun.

Your overall health requires mindful sun exposure. Hiding from the sun or burning can each cause problems. Like water, the sun is essential to life, yet too much is dangerous. Regular, moderate sun exposure is the goal.

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John Winters is a naturopathic physician, who recently retired after operating a practice in La Grande since 1992.

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