Don't Get BURNED and Get Your Vitamin D

February 11, 2020

This is my story about my relationship with the sun that led to my new book,
Dr. Lani's No-Nonsense SUN Health Guide.

My first encounter with skin cancer involved outpatient surgery to remove a small growth from my forearm. Later another carcinoma was excised from my back. Then, soon after my third skin cancer diagnosis in 1999, I participated in a five-day silent retreat at Spirit Rock, a meditation center in northern California. It was winter, and after ten straight days of wind and rain, the sun emerged into the
background of a perfectly blue sky.
 
To celebrate this gift and to shake out the days of sitting and struggling with a very active mind, I set out for an afternoon hike. The air was clean, fresh, and unusually warm, allowing me a taste of early spring. After climbing several steep hills, I found a sweet resting spot on a swatch of damp grass. I wanted to feel the sun on my skin, but, because I had become accustomed to always wearing clothing that provided a safe barrier against the penetrating ultraviolet rays, I hesitated. Would a few glorious minutes basking in the sun really be harmful, or could it actually be healthy for me? The warmth was irresistible; I removed my sun hat and long-sleeved shirt. As the heat warmed my body, tears welled up, and as they streamed down my face, my fear melted. The days of meditation fully opened me to this moment with the sun, my old friend. Thus, I began a renewed, conscious relationship with our world’s source of light and life.
 
In my early years, my relationship with the sun was anything but conscious. As a child, I lived in the sun’s rays, water-skiing every summer and playing outside whenever possible. My tanned skin was dark, thanks to Portuguese ancestry, but I am Scottish and Irish, too, which makes me especially susceptible to burning until a tan is established. Every year I suffered several second-degree burns with large blisters—one so severe that for two days I couldn’t walk without help and almost landed in the hospital.
 
In my teens, I sunbathed regularly in my backyard. To make sure my tan was even, I wrapped aluminum foil over cardboard to reflect the sun onto the sides of my body, thereby maximizing my likelihood of acquiring an agonizing sunburn. And although my mother thought she was helping, she made matters worse by basting my blistered skin with butter, which actually increased the damage. Every year, sunburns and peeling layers of dead skin were part of my summer experience. My mother and I added additional skin trauma by using Dermatologist-recommended, UVB-emitting sunlamps to create sunburns on our faces, which was, at one time, considered a remedy for acne. Of course, we wanted that “healthy glow” look as well. Looking back, I wonder if we suffered some form of amnesia, as we repeated this yearly ritual over and over again. 

In my early forties, I was diagnosed with borderline osteoporosis, and the diagnosis frightened me to my core. At that time, I attributed my low bone mass to never having developed good bone-building habits as a teenager. An estimated 80 to 90 percent of peak bone mass is acquired by age eighteen in girls and by age twenty in boys, which makes youth the best time to “invest” in one’s bone health. During my adolescence, I had a poor diet, didn’t exercise, and smoked a pack of cigarettes daily. So, having porous bones seemed a likely consequence of those poor health habits during my teen years. However, despite my mid-life efforts to build bone through a better diet and exercise regimen (and without ingesting commonly prescribed osteoporosis drugs), I continued to lose density. 

Ten years later, a blood test revealed that I had vitamin D deficiency. What? I had a vitamin D deficiency while living in California? The answer was simple: I live near the ocean, and the fog is often thick during summer months, which is just when we should be building up our stores of vitamin D for the winter. In addition, I bought into the notion that the sun was to be avoided at all times, especially midday, which is exactly when the particular ray that produces vitamin D is the strongest.
 
Two other health conditions emerged in my forties that I now relate, in part, to vitamin D deficiency: hypothyroidism and deep muscular and bone pain in both hips. The bilateral hip pain was so severe that I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep; the mere weight of my small body on a mattress would cause teeth-clenching episodes that worsened even though I practiced yoga and had chiropractic care and massage treatment. As it turns out, vitamin D deficiency can cause both muscle and bone pain, and the thyroid relies on vitamin D to function properly. These revelations awakened me to the breadth of the functioning of vitamin D in the body—and provided my first indication that vitamin D is not merely a vitamin, as it is actually, a type of hormone. It is, in fact, one of the most powerful hormones in the body. Only after I increased my vitamin D levels significantly, in my early fifties, did my hip pain finally resolve.
 
So, while I fried in the sun in my early years, I did not get enough sun in adulthood! For my own health, I needed to unravel the plethora of research papers and opinions from experts in the fields of vitamin D, osteoporosis, and skin cancer. As one research article led to another, and I delved ever deeper, I realized how little of the fast-expanding body of knowledge about the sun’s vital role in our health maintenance was available in an accessible and understandable format. So, what started out as a thirty-page pamphlet turned into this book, Dr. Lani’s No-Nonsense Sun Health Guide. Given the ramifications of either too much or too little sunshine, my recommendations here are based on research and, at times, good old common sense.
 
Excessive sun exposure can indeed increase skin cancer risk, yet the sun is essential for our health and well-being. The sunshine vitamin is a key ingredient for crucial bodily functions, including supporting bone growth as well as the nervous and immune systems. Vitamin D deficiency has been implicated in a wide range of disease processes including diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, depression, leukemia, eczema, many forms of cancer, and a host of additional ailments discussed further in forthcoming chapters of this book. And the added benefit of sunlight itself is crucial in maintaining a healthy mental status, as well as stimulating hormones necessary for a good night’s sleep.
 
Today, now at age 70, I have sustained over 20 skin cancers, including one melanoma that was caught very early. I regularly scan my own skin and almost all of my skin cancers, before my dermatologist. I am now informed and aware of the benefits and risks of sun exposure, I expose my skin cautiously to the sun for a few minutes, in order to produce some natural vitamin D, knowing that the sun can both heal and harm. I am hardly wanton regarding my time in the sun; in fact, quite the opposite, I am fully present and conscious of exactly how much exposure I receive. With this book, I offer a practical guide for a relationship with the sun—one devoid of fear yet imbued with cautious awareness.
 
I’ll also provide you information about how sun exposure can produce vitamin D, as well as a frank discussion about the risks of skin cancer. In addition, this book covers concerns about sunscreens. We’ve been told to slather up with sunscreen products, but—surprise—there’s estrogen in that sunscreen! Studies have confirmed that many of the active chemical ingredients in sunscreen products exhibit hormonal activity.
 
I have melded my concerns about these chemicals, and I offer advice on the best ingredients to look for—for you and your family. As well, a section of this book is devoted to a list of chemicals that consumers need to be aware of and avoid.
 
My journey, which started out as a quest to improve my own health, led me to question and learn what the body needs for optimal functioning. In that pursuit, I discovered that the sun, while often a source of joy and pleasure, also plays a vitally important and central role for our overall health. Here I share with you what I have learned in the hope that your life, too, is enhanced with sunlight, more joy, and better health.