Internal sunburn protection

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It’s still hot out there. Since I went over how to protect yourself from the heat last week, this week I wanted to focus on protecting yourself from sunburns. The obvious answer is slather on the sun block, but there will be plenty of times in your life when it either isn’t readily available, you didn’t think to put it on, or it simply wears off.

Fortunately, there’s a secret trick that I rarely hear anyone mention. I’ve written many articles about foods that reduce inflammation and improve cellular repair. Since a sunburn is basically damaged, inflamed skin, many of those same foods that extend your life and make you feel better can also reduce your risk of getting a sunburn, reduce the pain and redness if you do get burned, and most importantly, reduce the risks of developing skin cancer.

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Two types of UV rays

If you want to read an in-depth description about the different types of ultraviolet (UV) rays and their effects on the human body, I would recommend checking out this article written by the Skin Cancer Foundation. To briefly summarize, there are two types of ultraviolet radiation:

  • UVB: This form of light doesn’t penetrate as deeply into the skin but it’s known to cause the most damage. UVB triggers the release of inflammatory markers (sunburns) and more importantly, directly damages DNA which can lead to cancer.

  • UVA: We previously thought this type of ultraviolet light was more benign. It penetrates deeper into the skin and is known to contribute to premature skin aging, but we didn’t think it led to skin cancer. It tends to cause skin browning rather than skin burning which is why we use it in tanning beds. Unfortunately, recent research is starting to show that UVA contributes to cancer in it’s own way by increasing the amount of reactive oxygen species in your system that then go on to damage your DNA.

Whether directly of indirectly, both types of ultraviolet light cause DNA damage and inflammation. Be sure that the sun block you do chose is multi-spectrum so that it protects against UVA as well as the more commonly blocked UVB. You can also protect yourself from UV damage by fortifying your body’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and repair systems. As I’ve mentioned before, your DNA strands break constantly and it’s your diet that ensures your body has the tools it needs to put those stands back together properly.

New vitamin D study

An interesting new study found that taking massive doses of vitamin D an hour after a sun burn significantly reduced redness and swelling even 48 hours later. It also activated genes that increased skin levels of arginase-1. This enzyme increases tissue repair and healing and activates other anti-inflammatory proteins.

Now, before you think some vitamin D pills after a sunburn are the answer, even the study authors say this isn’t an ideal solution to sooth a sunburn. When I say massive doses of vitamin D, I mean massive. The study participants were taking up to 500 times the recommended daily allowance of vitamin D and the effects were dose-dependent, which means the highest doses led to the greatest reductions in symptoms.

I don’t bring up this study as a recommended prescription but as a demonstration that maintaining adequate vitamin D levels will help protect your skin against sunburns and indeed previous studies have shown this. Even better, other studies have also shown that vitamin D helps protect against skin cancer.

Aside from vitamin D, I want to quickly highlight some additional nutrients that can help create an internal sunblock that will lessen damage from the sun and more importantly, repair any damage that does occur so that it won’t eventually turn into something more serious.

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Other protective nutrients

Sulforaphane: As I mentioned in the article about the benefits of broccoli (and other cruciferous vegetables), the sulforaphane contained in these plants activates the NRF2 pathway, which is one of your body’s best defense mechanisms against oxidative damage and inflammation. In other words, it’s excellent protection against both UVA and UVB damage.

Magnesium: Ultraviolet radiation is one of the big environmental causes of DNA damage, and as I mentioned in the article on magnesium, you need a proper intake of this vital mineral in order to activate the enzymes that repair DNA damage. Since magnesium is at the center of the chlorophyl molecule, your best sources are greens, the darker the better, but you can also find it in beans, seeds, and many nuts.

Vitamin C and E: Some in vitro and animal studies have found antioxidants provide a protective effect against UV damage so one study wanted to see if it also applied to humans. It was a short term study so once again, they were doing large doses of each vitamin, but the results found it did reduce the amount of redness and inflammation from sunburns. You don’t need to down handfuls of vitamins all summer, but you should increase your intake of citrus fruits, strawberries, and almonds. Many of those great sulforaphane and magnesium sources also contain vitamins C and E like spinach, broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts, so they can really load up your protective systems.

Omega-3: One of the big reasons I recommend everyone take omega-3 supplements is because of the powerful anti-inflammatory benefits. Multiple studies have shown how omega-3 fatty acids reduce sunburn inflammation, protects against free radical damage, and reduces the risks of developing certain types of skin cancer. As always, the best source is fatty fish, but if you’re not a fan, I recommend fish oil supplements.

Lycopene: This beneficial antioxidant is most commonly consumed in cooked tomatoes but you can also find it in watermelon, pink grapefruit and even chili powder. It’s another nutrient that has been shown to reduce redness and damage from UV radiation and likely provides both short-term and long-term protection.

You can still burn

Added protection isn’t the same as complete protection so still exercise some caution. Wear sun block if you’re going to be out for prolonged periods of time, and make sure it offers multi-spectrum protection. While it is possible to overdo it on some of the vitamins above, you need to chronically overdo it for months before you start to experience adverse effects. If you do get a sun burn, I see no problem in upping your intake of fish, fruits, and vegetables for a few days to sooth your pain and repair some damage.

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