We are constantly reminded of the dangers of sun exposure and encouraged to constantly wear sunscreen to prevent skin damage, but by doing this we are missing out on all the healthy benefits of sunshine. In addition, using sunscreens that contain TOXIC chemicals may even CAUSE more health issues.
The earth, humans, plants, and animals all need sunshine to survive. The sun is the primary (and best) source of Vitamin D, which is crucial for immunity, mental health, hormone production, bone health, and sleep. Sunlight also helps to regulate your circadian rhythm, improve mood and cognition, and has even been shown to reduce the risk for certain cancers.
Each year more and more people are deficient in Vitamin D, have low levels of immunity, struggle with sleep, and regularly experience brain fog. Could this be in part from our lack of sunshine?
Even without an answer to this question, it seems obvious that we BENEFIT from natural sunshine, so the question becomes, how can we get the BENEFITS of sun exposure while minimizing the risks?
Being conscious of how and when we interact with the sun and loading up on foods that offer sun protection are great starting points! In fact, diet is an often-overlooked tool for mitigating the harmful effects of the sun. It is not a coincidence that many of the foods that provide sun protection are those that are easily available in the summertime! Another reason to eat seasonally!
First, let’s look at some ways to enjoy sunshine naturally.
- Limit exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. which is when the sun is at its highest intensity. Note: Vitamin D is absorbed best from noon to 2 pm, so try to spend 5-10 minutes in the sun during this time. Plan longer exposure activities to the morning or early evening hours.
- Instead of using large amounts of sunscreen, use preventive measures like wearing hats, long sleeves and pants, and sunglasses; plan activities when the sun is lower in the sky, and find shade to sit in.
- If using sunscreen, make sure it contains safe ingredients and re-apply regularly. (Click here for The Environmental Working Group Sunscreen Guide.)
- Vitamin D is produced RIGHT AFTER SUN EXPOSURE. So, for best results DO NOT SHOWER RIGHT AFTER Sun exposure or you might wash it off. Allow 1-2 hours for the Vitamin D to synthesize.
- Stay hydrated throughout the day with hydrating foods and beverages.
Next, let’s look at the role food can play in minimizing the negative effects of UV radiation.
Exposure to UV radiation from the sun produces free radicals in the body. Free radicals are either immediately absorbed and mitigated or are allowed to move throughout the body causing oxidative stress. The key is to prevent the free radicals from being produced or, if they do form, increase our ability to attack and counter these free radicals, so they do not cause harm.
This is where food plays a huge role. Food contains antioxidants, polyphenols, amino acids, and vitamins which counteract the negative effect of the free radicals and reduce oxidative stress. In addition, nutrients found in food help build skin health and resilience creating a barrier for the harmful rays to enter the body in the first place.
The foods below are especially helpful for maintaining skin health, mitigating free radicals, and reducing oxidative stress. If you already follow an overall whole food diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables, you are most likely consuming all these items already! If not, start adding them in today!
- Berries, especially blueberries, are a rich source of antioxidants that help protect us from UV radiation. In addition, berries contain high amounts of vitamin C which helps to strengthen and boost collagen production which is vital for healthy skin. (This Quinoa, Spinach & Blueberry Salad is perfect for a summer lunch.)
- Hemp seeds, chia seeds, and flax seeds are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids that help the skin maintain its integrity, and stay smooth, strong, and supple. In addition, Omega 3s are highly anti-inflammatory which can help with healing if you do get a sunburn. (Give this Hemp, Flax, and Chia Pudding a try!)
- Carrots, red peppers, and other deep orange and red vegetables are high in beta-carotene which our bodies convert into Vitamin A. Vitamin A supports vision, skin, and mucosal healing. In addition, research shows beta-carotene provides a shield from sunburn, but these effects kick in after a minimum of 10 weeks of consuming beta-carotene, so it is important to make these a regular part of your diet YEAR-ROUND!
- Tomatoes and Watermelon are high in lycopene which helps protect us from sunburn by absorbing both UVA and UVB radiation and eliminating it from the body. It may take several weeks for the skin to become more photoprotective. So, be sure to indulge in lycopene-rich food DAILY during the summer months! Watermelon has higher concentrations than tomatoes, and cooked tomatoes in the form of paste or sauce have HIGHER levels than raw forms. (Check out this Tomato & Watermelon Salad for a double dose of lycopene!)
- Dark Leafy Greens are high in lutein and zeaxanthin which are antioxidants that can help offset the damage from UV rays and prevent skin wrinkles!
- Cauliflower contains histidine, an amino acid, that helps in absorption of UV radiation.
- Cacao powder contains antioxidants that help prevent sun damage, improve blood flow to the skin, and enhance skin texture and structure. Just beware of highly processed, sugar-laden chocolate items.
- Green tea is rich in polyphenols that offer natural sun protection from UVA light, helps to destroy free radicals, may inhibit skin tumors, and protects against collagen loss. Chill your green tea to make refreshing iced tea rather than buying and consuming bottled, sugary beverages.
- Sunflower seeds contain high levels of vitamin E which has been shown to help protect the skin against damage and promote skin healing. (Sunflower seeds add crunch to any salad!)
In general, a nutrient-rich diet plays a key role in our overall health as well as providing support to us when we are outside. The best foods for sun protection are nutrient-dense, delicious, and easy to incorporate into your everyday routine! So, load up on seasonal produce and enjoy the sunshine!
Until Next Time,