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Art of SKIN’s Dr. Lubitz answers: How much sunshine should I get?

Dr. Paul Lubitz answers question, how much sunshine should I get?

As the dog days of summer come to an end, a new study out of the United States indicates Canadians may be Vitamin D deficient from lack of sun exposure. The study credits numerous public health campaigns for raising awareness about skin cancer. At the same time, it is critical of these same campaigns in their lack of informing the general public of the need for Vitamin D derived from the sun’s rays.

The new study backs up 2010 Statistics Canada findings that cited, “Two-thirds of the population has Vitamin D levels below the amounts research is associating with reduced risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, while one in 10, have such low readings that they don’t have enough for good bone health.”

Public Health campaigns in the U.S. and Canada have taken aim at sun over-exposure and recommend that people avoid exposure during ‘peak hours’ between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. However, in Canada, when little to no Vitamin D is metabolized in the winter, it is especially important that Canadians receive their dose of Vitamin D when the sun is shining.

“In Canada, vitamin D from sunlight can only be synthesized in the skin during the spring, summer and fall, around midday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when the UV index is above three,” The Chronicle Journal reported. “This is the same time period health authorities say we should avoid sunshine, especially when the UV index is high.”

The hardline stance of the Surgeon General and Health Canada is understandable because both agencies want to combat and prevent the more than, “3.5 million new cases of and 2,000 deaths from non-melanoma skin cancer in the United States each year,” according to Carole Baggerly the study’s author; as well as the 78,300 new cases of non-melanoma skin cancer that Canadians will be diagnosed with in 2015 according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

In 2010, the daily amount of Vitamin D needed was raised after researchers found that Vitamin D was vital for bone health and prevention of chronic diseases. “The Institute of Medicine, recommended tripling the daily vitamin D intake for children and adults in the U.S. and Canada, to 600 IU per day,” the Harvard School for Public Health reported. “The report also recognized the safety of vitamin D by increasing the upper limit from 2,000 to 4,000 IU per day, and acknowledged that even at 4,000 IU per day, there was no good evidence of harm.”

Known as ‘the sunshine vitamin’, Vitamin D helps the body absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus, both critical for bone building. Studies show that Vitamin D can reduce cancer cell growth and plays a critical role in controlling infections. Many of the body’s organs and tissues have receptors for Vitamin D, and scientists are still teasing out its other possible functions and studying the benefits of Vitamin D.

Dr. Paul Lubitz, a Canadian dermatologist in Canmore, Alberta and who runs Art of SKIN Dermatology, Laser and Cosmetic Surgery, notes that it is important that we still protect ourselves from the harmful rays of the sun, while also getting an adequate amount of Vitamin D. “The sun’s rays that trigger the skin to produce Vitamin D are strongest near the equator and weaker at higher latitudes,” Dr. Paul Lubitz said. “So in the fall and winter, people who live at higher latitudes – the northern U.S. and Canada for example – can’t make Vitamin D from the sun as effectively as those people living farther south.”

Dr. Lubitz cautions though, “recent research does suggest that there are potentially multiple benefits for humans from increased Vitamin D bioavailability (through synthesis by sun exposure and dietary consumption), however, the harmful effects of unprotected or significant sun exposure are clearly reflected in the increasing statistics on skin cancer prevalence that we seeing throughout the world. Where I work in the Bow Valley in western Alberta and where the vast majority of people are outside every chance they get, 12 months of the year, I am not seeing a lot of Ricketts or other forms of Vitamin D deficiency. What I am seeing is a sharply increasing amount of skin cancer. And for me, as a dermatologist, this is of great concern”.

Although some scientific groups (ie Baggerly et al.) are calling for more Vitamin D through sun exposure, it is still extremely important to protect yourself, especially when outdoors for long periods of times. Sunscreen is paramount with appropriate reapplication as required; also, one should wear a visor or hat to protect the eyes and face. “Certain groups of individuals have a dramatically increased risk of skin cancer with prolonged or unprotected sunlight (UV) exposure such as those living, working and playing at high altitudes (the Bow Valley is an excellent example of this), those with significant long term UV exposure, those with fairer skin types, those with exposure to tanning beds and those with a personal or family history of pre skin cancer lesions or skin cancer,” Dr. Paul Lubitz explained.

One thing that people can and should do who are at increased risk of developing skin cancer is to have yearly skin examinations performed by a dermatologist, an accredited skin specialist. Dermatologists are medical doctors with years of extra training in skin diseases providing them with the knowledge and ability to provide patients with expert information on the overall quality of their skin, the ability to diagnose and treat pre cancer and skin cancer lesions and to educate patients on appropriate sun awareness strategies.

With the non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancer rates steadily growing in the U.S. and Canada, it is of the utmost importance that you protect yourself from harmful rays. However, like anything in life, finding a balance between getting enough Vitamin D exposure and protecting yourself from the development of skin cancer and UV related skin damage is key.

One final note: Dr. Lubitz recommends avoiding artificial forms of sunlight, such as tanning beds in particular, as a proactive step in weeding out these non-beneficial and in fact very dangerous UV light sources that are directly related to increased rates of skin cancer and getting more Vitamin D from limited and controlled natural sun exposure.

And on the question, how much sunshine should I get, Dr. Lubitz states that “from a science perspective and trying to incorporate the multitude of related, known and mostly unknown, variables (Vitamin D synthesis, and skin cancer tumour genesis are only two of many), we quite simply don’t know the answer yet. That is what tomorrow is for”.

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