Building a healthy relationship with the sun

The many benefits of sun exposure, how to love the sun without getting burned, and ways to eat your sunscreen

The sun’s rays provide a plethora of benefits, yet sun is only fun when not overdone. Photo: Shannon MacLean

The sun is a very special, middle-aged star at the heart of our solar system. Its gravity pulls on Earth, and we orbit, receiving its life-giving gifts. Our bodies are designed to be addicted to this exchange, our skin designed to be exposed to its rays. Yet it seems the sun needs a new PR rep; many are scared to enjoy its gifts for fear of skin cancer or aging, and are encouraged to avoid intimate meetings. In turn, we have a massive cultural vitamin D deficiency (roughly 75% of people in North American have insufficient levels), chronic disease is increasing, and rates of the deadly skin cancer melanoma are higher than ever despite climbing sunscreen use. Read on to heal your relationship with our most beloved star.

Our bodies convert sunbeams into vitamin D3. As this vitamin travels through our body, it influences many functions, including organ repair, immune boosting/balance, lowering insulin and blood pressure, boosting neuromuscular functioning, and preventing cancer and autoimmune disease. When our vitamin D receptors are brimming with the sunshine vitamin, it prevents the gene expression of an array of disease-causing genes, Recent studies have found that with adequate amounts of vitamin D in our body our risk for breast cancer is reduced by a whopping 50%. Most melanomas occur on the least sun-exposed areas, and it is more common for people who work indoors under artificial lighting to get melanoma than those who work outside. Vitamin D regulates the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, helps maintain healthy bones and teeth, and treats various skin diseases. The sunshine vitamin also plays a role in neurotransmission. Deficiency has been associated with many neurological disorders. The blue wavelength of sunlight (received by our naked eyes) is particularly important for regulating circadian rhythm, This helps improve mood, sleep patterns, energy levels, and depressive symptoms. Sunlight feels good. UV rays stimulate creation of beta-endorphins. Sun exposure on bare skin also produces nitric oxide and carbon monoxide that cause vascular relaxation, improve wound healing, and help fight infections. If you’ve ever hung a smelly towel in the sun you’ve experienced the powerful germicidal properties of sunlight.

Despite all these assets, we are vulnerable to sunburn, and repeated sunburns can create visible damage of the skin and contribute to disease. This can be prevented by starting to expose skin in the spring, from the early hours until solar noon, slowly but surely, covering up as soon as (or before) our skin starts feeling warm. This safely produces melanin, which transforms 99.9% of UV radiation into heat that is easily dissipated. We can avoid exposure during peak hours (11 a.m.–4 p.m.) by seeking shade or wearing long-sleeve tops and hats at these times. Infants and children are extra sensitive to the sun’s benefits and damage. Babies should only be exposed for a few minutes at a time. Children are generally moving around in the sun. Noses, cheeks, and tops of shoulders are areas sunblock may be most necessary. If a sunburn does occur, fresh aloe vera soothes and speeds healing when applied topically. The app D Minder helps avoid burning by considering the time of day, season, latitude, and your degree of skin pigmentation, then issues warnings about impending sunburn while providing an estimate of vitamin D levels being received. Natural sunscreens utilize plant oils, which offer some degree of ultraviolet protection to their own tissue as well as ours. Non-coated, non-nano zinc is a naturally occurring mineral which blocks the sun’s rays, preventing skin from burning. Badger sunscreen, available at Mountain Goodness, uses these natural ingredients. Chemicals, in contrast, block UVB rays while allowing UVA through, which can lead to heat exposure and an overabundance of UV rays, all while blocking the benefits of vitamin D. Chemical sunscreens are also destroying reefs around the world and are set to be outlawed in Hawaii.

As always, Mother Nature is smarter than us (after all, she’s taught us everything we know). Summer’s fresh, colorful sun-ripened fruits and vegetables provide antioxidants that boost our internal sunscreen by nourishing our skin and altering the way it responds to sunlight. Examples include pink and red, sun-ripened fruits such watermelon, papaya, apricots, grapefruit, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, red peppers. Researchers in the UK have demonstrated a 30% increase in sun protection after eating a tomato-rich diet. Dark leafy greens and herbs such as leeks, broccoli, kale, romaine, spinach, cilantro, celery, and parsley help prevent and repair sun damage. Black, white, and green teas, as well as cacao protect our skin from sunburn and skin cancer. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, arugula, cabbage, and bok choy contain an antioxidant that helps protect our cells from over-exposure to the sun’s rays. One of the most powerful antioxidants found in nature is high in seafood, especially wild salmon, and has been shown to protect the skin and eyes from an imbalance of UV. Grapes, dark berries, pistachios, and cacao contain resveratrol which has also been shown to protect skin cells from UV damage. Healthy organic fats and essential fatty acids such as cold-water fish, meat and dairy from pasture-raised animals, nuts, avocados, coconut oil, and olive oil are required to amplify the benefits of the sun’s rays. Abstaining from the standard American diet of processed food produced using pesticides, factory farming, additives, preservatives, processed sugars, and polyunsaturated/rancid fats (vegetable oils) also helps prevent sun damage, as these foods cause inflammation, trigger collagen breakdown/wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, DNA damage, immune system suppression, and impaired intracellular communication.

Shannon MacLean is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and is currently accepting patients at Jade Wellness.

Shannon MacLean
Shannon MacLean, of Spruce Tip Holistic Nutrition, and is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist with a BA in International Relations. She is passionate about empowered, root-cause healthcare, wild foraging, recipe creation, and all things health and wellness. She is currently offering one-on-one wellness consulting as well as menu plans. Visit her website for online booking, send her a message at, and follow her on instagram @sprucetipnutrition