Spring and summer means outdoor fun — plus exposure to stronger sunrays.
And recent research strongly suggests that excessive sun-avoidance is unhealthy.
Other than hats and sunscreen, how can we — especially fair-skinned folks protect against sunburn and skin cancer?
Short-term and long-term effects of sunburn
Besides discomfort, sunburns promote premature skin aging and skin cancer.
The direct cause of sunburn is the sun's ultraviolet radiation, which comes in UVA and UVB forms.
UV sunrays trigger production of unstable oxygen molecules called free radicals.
Free radicals play key roles in the countless oxidation-reduction chemical reactions that occur in our bodies every second.
Although free radicals are often painted as villains, they're essential to the fundamental processes of life.
But the swarms of free radicals created by overexposure to sun can overwhelm the body's "antioxidant network” of vitamins and enzymes, leading to inflammation, skin aging, and DNA damage that causes cancer.
Four ways diet can help deflect sunny skin dmage
Certain foods and nutrients appear to help to safeguard skin ... let's take a look at four promising anti-burn allies.
#1 – Omega-3 fish oils
The omega-3s in fish and fish oil may help reduce sun damage to skin.
UV sunrays trigger inflammation in the skin, and the body uses messengers (resolvins and protectins) it makes from omega-3s to moderate or end inflammation.
An evidence review from British researchers affirmed the promise of fish fats:
"There is strong circumstantial evidence from both experimental and clinical studies to support a role for omega-3 FA [fatty acids] in the prevention of non-melanoma skin cancer.” (Black HS, Rhodes LE 2006)
And a 2013 study showed that taking fish oils daily boosted the immunity of volunteers' skin to the damaging effects of sunlight (Pilkington SM et al. 2013).
According to the lead researcher — dermatologist Lesley Rhodes, M.D. — "The findings are very exciting. This study adds to the evidence that omega-3 is a potential nutrient to protect against skin cancer.”
Sun protection from omega-3s is more likely to be effective when your intake of omega-6 vegetable fats is no more than two to three times your omega-3 intake.
Unfortunately, the average American's diet provides 10 to 15 times more omega-6s than omega-3s ... an historically unprecedented imbalance that keeps inflammation simmering, with dire health implications (see our Omega-3/6 Balance page
#2 – Colorful fruits and veggies
The carotene and carotenoid compounds in plant foods (and salmon) are both antioxidants and pigments.
Carotenes make carrots and winter squash orange, while carotenoids give tomatoes, salmon, and leafy greens their characteristic colors.
These closely related compounds can help neutralize the excess free radicals caused by sun exposure.
When you eat foods containing carotenes and carotenoids, they accumulate in your blood and tissues, including the skin.
In one double-blind study, 20 young women took 30 mg daily of beta-carotene or placebo for 10 weeks before a 13-day stretch of controlled sun exposure.
The women who'd taken beta-carotene before and during the sun exposure experienced less skin redness than those taking placebo, even when both groups used sunscreen.
Another 12-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that beta-carotene (24 mg daily) and a mixture of beta-carotene and carotenoids (8 mg of each daily) were equally protective against sun-induced skin redness.
Two additional trials found that taking mixed carotenoids for 12 to 24 weeks raised the study participants' resistance to UV radiation, with more UV exposure required before they developed a sunburn.
However, not all studies have found sun-related benefits from beta-carotene or carotenoids.
In a double-blind trial of 16 older women, high doses of beta-carotene taken for 23 days didn't provide any more protection than placebo against simulated sun exposure.
#3 – Dark Chocolate
Need another reason to treat yourself to dark, cocoa-rich chocolate?
Cocoa, which (like green tea) abounds in uncommon antioxidants called flavan-3-ols that may reduce the damage done by UV sunrays.
A 2006 German study found that women who drank raw cocoa for 12 weeks displayed significant reductions in scaling and roughness of their skin, plus substantial increases in skin blood flow, skin density, and hydration, which can yield better-looking skin.
And dermatologists in the UK studied the effects of high-flavanol chocolate as a sun protector.
They gave one group ate 20 grams (about 1/3 of a 2-ounce bar) of a high-flavanol chocolate daily for three months, while the other volunteers consumed the same amount of a low-flavanol chocolate.
After 12 weeks, the high-flavanol-chocolate group had more than double the UV protection, compared with the people in the low-flavanol-chocolate group, who showed no significant difference.
Specifically, it took exposure to twice as much UV radiation to make their skin redden.
Don't avoid the sun entirely, and eat colorfully
As we said at the outset, legitimate fear of skin cancer has led to excessive sun-avoidance.
And that excessive avoidance may have actually raised rates of non-skin cancers, due to lack of the vitamin D created by sun exposure.
So get moderate sun exposure at the beginning and end of the day ... and eat a diet rich in colorful plant foods, salmon, and cocoa!
- Black HS, Rhodes LE. The potential of omega-3 fatty acids in the prevention of non-melanoma skin cancer. Cancer Detect Prev. 2006 Jul 25; [Epub ahead of print]
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