Are we looking at vitamin D and sunlight the wrong way? Back in 2016 I posted about the results of a long-running Swedish study that made me rethink everything I knew about sunlight and health. (The prevailing view of dermatologists at the time and now is: to always use sunscreen if going outdoors in order to lower the risk of skin cancer. In other words, that sunlight is always harmful.)
The Swedish study followed women for 20 years and found that: Women who had more sunlight exposure experienced a lower mortality rate than women who avoided sun exposure. However, they were at an increased risk of skin cancer. But those with more sun exposure lived longer due to a decrease in heart (cardiovascular) disease and other noncancer reasons. And the most surprising finding: Nonsmokers who avoided sun exposure had a similar life expectancy as smokers with the highest sun exposure. In other words: avoidance of sun exposure = cigarette smoking when looking at life expectancy. And the results of sun exposure was dose-dependent, with the more, the better for longer life expectancy.
The researchers suggested that a person's vitamin D levels might be just a marker of sun exposure, which other studies and articles now also suggest. So while we measure vitamin D levels in studies, maybe we should instead be looking at sunlight exposure.
Since then I read more studies that found other benefits of sunlight exposure, such as sunlight having low levels of "blue light" which energizes T cells. T cells are a type of white blood cell, are part of the immune system, and help protect the body from infection and cellular abnormalities (cancer). An earlier study found that exposing skin to sunlight may help to reduce blood pressure and thus cut the risk of heart attack and stroke.
This year I read the following two nicely written articles about this whole issue, both a little different - so worth reading both to get a good idea about the research and the debate.
1) From Outside: Is Sunscreen the New Margarine?
2) From Elemental Medium: What If Avoiding the Sun Is Bad for You?
And once again, a link to the 20 year Swedish study, from the Journal of Internal Medicine: Avoidance of sun exposure as a risk factor for major causes of death: a competing risk analysis of the Melanoma in Southern Sweden cohort