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I visited a friend recently who has started living on a boat. As a casual comment, seeing people around the boatyard with healthy tans, he queried “I wonder if these people get more skin cancer?”

Bare-chested, well tanned sailor rigs his boat.My reply was cagey, as I have long heard counter arguments to the pervading “Sun causes cancer” idea. After all, we lived for 700,000 years since diverging from the apes, with little hair, no clothes and lots of sun exposure. Surely our bodies must be used to the sun. Today though I stumbled upon something more concrete in terms of why the cancer figures have been rising.

Firstly, according to the British Journal of Dermatology, a 40% reported increase in melanoma over 13 years in the UK, is largely due to a change in how skin problems are diagnosed. Benign, safe, non threatening changes in people’s skin are being diagnosed as the beginning of dangerous cancer. However, by tracing the people diagnosed in this way, it showed that very few of them developed any further disease. In the US, according to Carole Baggerly, the founder of GrassrootsHealth, the skin cancers that are associated with the sun; the basal and squamous cell carcinomas can be cut and burned off and they don’t even track them in the US, because they are so numerous.

Secondly, a study in the journal Medical Hypotheses suggests that the main underlying cause of increased skin cancer, is not having enough sun, or more specifically, not enough outdoor exposure. According to Dr Mercola* moderate and gradual exposure to sunlight, particularly UVB, which produces vitamin D, protects people against melanoma and can reduce your risk of as many as 16 different types of cancer, including cutting the risk of breast cancer by 40 to 50%!

According to the study, “indoor workers get three to nine times less solar UV exposure than outdoor workers get, yet only indoor workers (Emphasis is mine) have an increasing incidence of CMM” (Cutaneous malignant melanoma.) The sunlight that indoor workers get, through the windows, has none of the healthy UVB radiation that produces vitamin D3 and enough UVA to be dangerous. They lack vitamin D3 that protects them from cancer, and because of this lack, they are susceptible to sudden high doses of sunlight. In fact, our indoor lifestyle may be contributing to the increase of a number of diseases such as osteoporosis, diabetes, dementia as well as cancers in general, all due to lack of vitamin D3.

According to Dr Balz Frei, over 90% of Americans are vitamin D deficient. It is unlikely that people in Britain are any better off, given our latitude, climate and the fact that most of us cover up and stay indoors. Even NHS Choices used to admit that “A 2007 survey estimated that around 50% of all adults have some degree of vitamin D deficiency.” The discrepancies may be down to what blood levels of the vitamin are considered adequate. The Vitamin D Council and GrassrootsHealth recommend levels between 40 and 60 ng/ml (nano-grams per mili-litre) or 100 to 150 nmol/L (nano-mols per litre, which is the usual British measure.) Dr Mercola reports that 50 to 70 ng/ml is ideal and 70 to 100 ng/ml is best for fighting cancer.

The only way to know your own levels is to get tested. For only £29, you can order a test from City Assays in the UK. Alternatively, you can join the Worldwide D*action vitamin D research project by GrassrootsHealth. This costs $60 (around £40) every 6 months for 5 years if you follow the whole programme.

Doses for most people to get into the recommended 40 to 60 ng/ml range can be nearly 10 times higher than the 600 IU (international units) recommended by the US Institute of Medicine (Now the  National Academy of Medicine.) I myself have been supplementing with 5000 IU per day. There was once concern about overdosing on vitamin D, though it now seems clear that there also needs to be an overdose of calcium for there be any problems. For ill effects, you would need to take 8 x 5000 IU tablets a day (40,000 IU) for three months or more than 60 tablets (300,000 IU) within 24 hours! Seeing as it is so safe and you can get a year’s supply of 5000 IU tablets for less than £10 on Ebay*, it seems stupid to not do something about it!

(Edit 27/12/2016: I tried taking one 50,000 iu tablet per week. This upset my stomach and it has to be carefully balanced with not too much calcium and the right amount of magnesium and other supplements. Maybe I got the balancing wrong. My wife uses 2000 iu tablets instead of 5000 iu, as these are better on her stomach. It may be that she was particularly low on vitamin D and her body was just not used to it. The 2000 iu tablets are about the same value as the 5000 iu ones, so it may be best to start with 2000 iu per day and try doubling up after a while. These quantities are now even available from some chemists.)

Sunbathing in the Windward Islands.So there we have it. The people in the boatyard are probably not at greater risk of skin cancer and probably at less risk of other cancers and diseases, due to better vitamin D levels from sunlight. The best thing is to get out and expose about 40% of your skin until it just turns pink each day and then cover up. Next best thing is to go to a tanning studio. If you want some natural internal sunscreen and to get a head start on your tan before you go on that holiday, then you could supplement with Astaxanthin which you can again get cheaply from Ebay*. Otherwise, if you do not live an outdoor life, then do not subject your body to sudden overdoses of sunlight and supplement yourself with vitamin D3.

*I currently have no vested interests in any sites or companies linked. and Ebay are both commercial sites.

Sailor by Marc Falardeau at Flickr (Account closed)
Windward Island by Lyn Gately at Flickr
Both licensed as Creative Commons 2.0

Re-edited 10/07/2018.

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