Sunshine - now the good news

Lesley Dobson

Most of us love feeling the warmth of the sun on our backs, but it has real health benefits too.

New evidence that suggests that having inadequate levels of vitamin D puts us at greater risk of developing cancer. A recent study carried out at Creighton University, Omaha, USA, and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, looked at over 1,100 women whose average age was 66 years. The women were divided into three groups and given either calcium, calcium plus vitamin D or a placebo. At the end of the four-year study, the group who’d taken calcium and vitamin D came out best. Their risk of developing breast cancer was 60% lower than in the placebo group.

Another study, carried out by Dr Cedric Garland, a cancer prevention specialist at the University of California, and colleagues, suggests that getting enough vitamin D could cut 350,000 cases of breast cancer and 250,000 cases of colorectal cancer a year, worldwide. The researchers maintain that increasing vitamin D levels, particularly in people living in northern climates, could prevent cancer and be used with existing treatments for cancer. ‘This could best be achieved with a combination of diet, supplements and short intervals – 14 or 20 minutes a day – in the sun’, said Dr Garland.

Prostate cancer protection

There is also some evidence to suggest that exposure to the sun as an adult and in childhood may help protect men against prostate cancer. Vitamin D is important for bone health, too. Without it, we wouldn’t process calcium as efficiently, putting us at greater risk of osteoporosis.

That doesn’t mean that we should toast ourselves in the mid-day sun, though. ‘Vitamin D plays an important role in a number of diseases,’ says Rebecca Russell, SunSmart campaign manager for Cancer Research UK. ‘ Staying out of the sun completely is not recommended, it’s not good for your health. But it’s easy to maintain adequate levels of sun exposure and avoid sunburn. The amount of sun it takes to make enough vitamin D is always less than it takes for your skin to go red.’

Go easy on the sunbeds

If you’re thinking of faking your tan with a few sessions on a sunbed, you might want to think again. ‘We know that sunbeds increase the risk of skin cancer,’ says Rebecca Russell. ‘You shouldn’t go on a sunbed if you have fair skin, lots of moles or freckles, or have a history of skin cancer. And people under 18 shouldn’t use sunbeds.’

The intensity of UV rays emitted by sunbeds can be 10-15 times higher than that of the midday sun in summer. And anyone using a sunbed before the age of 35 increases their risk of developing skin cancer by up to 75%

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