January 13, 2019

GETTING SUN EXPOSURE — AND VITAMIN D — VERY WRONG?

But today most of us have indoor jobs, and when we do go outside, we’ve been taught to protect ourselves from dangerous UV rays, which can cause skin cancer. Sunscreen also blocks our skin from making vitamin D, but that’s OK, says the American Academy of Dermatology, which takes a zero-tolerance stance on sun exposure: “You need to protect your skin from the sun every day, even when it’s cloudy,” it advises on its website. Better to slather on sunblock, we’ve all been told, and compensate with vitamin D pills.

Yet vitamin D supplementation has failed spectacularly in clinical trials. Five years ago, researchers were already warning that it showed zero benefit, and the evidence has only grown stronger. In November, one of the largest and most rigorous trials of the vitamin ever conducted—in which 25,871 participants received high doses for five years—found no impact on cancer, heart disease, or stroke.

How did we get it so wrong? How could people with low vitamin D levels clearly suffer higher rates of so many diseases and yet not be helped by supplementation?

As it turns out, a rogue band of researchers has had an explanation all along. And if they’re right, it means that once again we have been epically misled.

These rebels argue that what made the people with high vitamin D levels so healthy was not the vitamin itself. That was just a marker. Their vitamin D levels were high because they were getting plenty of exposure to the thing that was really responsible for their good health—that big orange ball shining down from above. . . .

Weller’s doubts began around 2010, when he was researching nitric oxide, a molecule produced in the body that dilates blood vessels and lowers blood pressure. He discovered a previously unknown biological pathway by which the skin uses sunlight to make nitric oxide.

It was already well established that rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and overall mortality all rise the farther you get from the sunny equator, and they all rise in the darker months. Weller put two and two together and had what he calls his “eureka moment”: Could exposing skin to sunlight lower blood pressure?

Sure enough, when he exposed volunteers to the equivalent of 30 minutes of summer sunlight without sunscreen, their nitric oxide levels went up and their blood pressure went down. Because of its connection to heart disease and strokes, blood pressure is the leading cause of premature death and disease in the world, and the reduction was of a magnitude large enough to prevent millions of deaths on a global level. . . .

Vitamin D now looks like the tip of the solar iceberg. Sunlight triggers the release of a number of other important compounds in the body, not only nitric oxide but also serotonin and endorphins. It reduces the risk of prostate, breast, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers. It improves circadian rhythms. It reduces inflammation and dampens autoimmune responses. It improves virtually every mental condition you can think of. And it’s free.

Plus: “Avoidance of sun exposure is a risk factor of a similar magnitude as smoking, in terms of life expectancy.” Rather a blot on the dermatologists’ copybook. It’s even worse if you’re dark-skinned. And it’s sad that my Vitamin D supplementation may be for naught, though we’ll see. I’ve always tried to get a reasonable amount of sun, too, on the theory that maybe the process of making Vitamin D was as important as the product. Old-time bodybuilders always thought sun exposure was good for muscle growth; maybe it was the nitric oxide; bodybuilders certainly take nitric oxide supplements today.

Beware of the toxic influence of Big Sunscreen.

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