The Evolutionary Timeline of the Sunburn
Over the past sixty years or so, we have moved more and more towards an indoor, temperature controlled environment with the least amount of movement required. Due to this change as a species, we have become deficient in vitamin D from the sun which is implicated in practically every single cancer and multiple health disorders. Looking at just the recent numbers we see that in 1935, the risk of skin cancer was 1 in 500; it is now 1 in 55. One argument is that we are living longer and the accumulation of sun damage isn’t showing up until later in life. This a valid point, however it can’t account for all of the cases including individuals that get skin cancer in their 20’s and 30’s.
Let’s think about this logically for a second. Homosapians have survived for hundreds of thousands of years spending the majority of our time outdoors in the sun. Did we have sunblock? No. Did we have skin cancer? If so, it was a rare occurrence. But something else happened during the evolutionary timeline. At some point, we lost an enzyme called photolayse and replaced it with a less efficient nucleotide excision repair mechanism (in other words, a poor imitation product with cheap parts).
Photolayses are found in plants, fungi, many animals, bacteria and even yeast, and are responsible for scanning DNA for signs of UV damage and quickly make repairs. For some reason, humans lost this enzyme and I couldn’t find when this exactly occurred. According to this article, “The good news is that even though humans and other mammals have lost photolyase, we may still be able to harness it to protect our own DNA. Given that photolyases were lost in evolution, it was possible that other proteins in the cell that allowed photolyases to do their job were also lost. But mice that were given the gene for the photolyase protein showed remarkable protection from UV damage. This means that in mice, the rest of the cellular infrastructure that photolyases need is still there. Chances are good that it’s there for humans as well.” My question is, did this enzyme disappear due to a lack of sunlight as we moved more indoors, or something in our diet? Did this occur around the same time we lost the ability to synthesize vitamin C, a potent antioxidant?
Was it the Climate that Changed our Skin Color, or our Diet?
It was first thought that humans evolved with different shades of skin color dependent on climate, the amount of sun and latitude. However, this theory has changed. In fact, this research has led to the food production theory, that states that the dietary switch to grains could be the reason Europeans developed lighter skin, not the climate change. The cereal-rich diet of Neolithic farmers lacked vitamin D so Europeans rapidly lost their dark-skin pigmentation only once they switched to agriculture, because it was only at that point that they had to synthesize vitamin D from the sun more readily. This explains why the Inuit in the arctic circle kept a dark pigmentation in a low light climate and avoided vitamin D deficiency. The northern Europeans switched to a wheat and other grain based diet and became vitamin D deficient, while the Inuits in the arctic circle maintained a grain-free diet high in vitamin D rich animal foods, and avoided deficiency.
Our vitamin D levels are optimized with the sun exposure from the summer and fall, and the amount required is dependent on our skin color. Lighter skin required less sun, while darker skin required more to get the same desired effect. Our new indoor version of the human species however has a hard time adapting to sunlight; like a house plant put outside. Once you have spent time in the sun consistently, your body adapts and is able to withstand longer time in the sun without burning. What is dangerous is spending 8 months out of the year indoors, and then getting fried in the sun over a long weekend.
Skin Cancer Rates in the US: Does More Sun or Less Sun Equal More Skin Cancer?
Now, let’s take a look at the skin cancer rate incidence in the United States according to the CDC in 2011. If the sun was the primary cause of skin cancer, you would expect to see California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas and Florida with the highest rates. But you don’t. They actually have some of the lowest rates of skin cancer. Who has some of the highest? Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Minnesota, the states with some of the lowest amount of sun exposure. As you break it down further, you can see that race plays a part in these statistics. We know that Caucasians have the highest rates of skin cancer, and hispanic and blacks have the lowest as you can see from this chart from the CDC. More than 9 out of 10 cases of melanoma are diagnosed in non-Hispanic whites:
As of 2010/2011: Lowest Rates of Skin Cancer States
- California has 40 percent white, 39 percent hispanic and 6 percent black
- Arizona has 55 percent white, 33 percent hispanic and 4 percent black
- Nevada has 53 percent white, 26 percent hispanic and 8 percent black
- Texas 42 percent white, 40 percent hispanic and 12 percent black
- Florida has 59 percent white, 22 percent hispanic and 15 percent black
High Rates of Skin Cancer States
- Oregon has 80 percent white, 9 percent hispanic and 2 percent black
- Washington has 70 percent white, 12 percent hispanic and 3 percent black
- Idaho has 82 percent white, 13 percent hispanic and no data on blacks
- Minnesota has 83 percent white, 5 percent hispanic and 5 percent black
*Missing percentages to equal 100 are categorized as “other.”
An interesting one to point out is New York in comparison to Vermont. Granted the total population varies greatly, however it’s important to look at the profiles. You have bordering states with polar results. New York has 57 percent white, 18 percent hispanic and 14 percent black while Vermont has 94 percent white, 1 percent hispanic and 1 percent black.
Updated Skin Cancer Statistics from 2012
An updated chart from 2012 from the CDC shows that Arizona, New Mexico and Texas still have the lowest incidence, but California and Florida moved up a bracket. However the two highest brackets still remain predominately in the northern region of the US. The new interactive chart also allows you to see the rates of death by melanoma, which changes the final results. The lowest rates of death from melanoma are in California, Texas and Colorado, while the highest rates are evenly split from the south to the north including Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Oregon and Montana, and mid-western states.
Let’s postulate that whites have a greater risk of skin cancer in areas that have the lowest level of sunlight. Would this mean that moving whites to sunnier climates would decrease the amount of skin cancer? Is it that whites are more susceptible because they are actually deficient in vitamin D? If lighter skin was an evolutionary trait to adapt to environments to provide less sunlight, wouldn’t that mean that less sun would achieve the desired result? Or is there something else at work in the diet?
The Dietary Link to Preventing Skin Cancer
Today, it is estimated that vegetable oils are the single biggest increase in any kind of food nutrient over the course of the 20th century, with soy oil being number #1. Fats from soy, corn, safflower, sunflower, canola and other vegetable oils are high in omega-6 fats, prone to oxidation and rancidity, and causing tremendous cellular dysfunction. This high consumption of omega-6 fats completely alters the important omega 6:3 ratio, and this ratio is one of the keys to obtaining any type of cancer, skin cancer in particular. Where else would we find these omega-6’s? Feedlot agriculture from eggs, dairy and meat feed corn and soy instead of the natural pastured diet that promotes a higher omega-3 content and less omega-6’s. This would line up with the dramatic change in the skin cancer statistics from the 1930’s until now, the exact time the industrial food chain took off.
According to a study from Cancer Research, epidemiological, experimental, and mechanistic data implicate omega-6 fat as stimulators and long-chain omega-3 fats as inhibitors of development and progression of a range of human cancers, including melanoma. Over a decade ago, an Australian study showed a 40 percent reduction in melanoma for those who were eating fish. Recently, the National Academy of Sciences published a comprehensive review showing that the omega 6:3 ratio was the key to preventing skin cancer development.
Now we are on to something. As humans moved out of Africa and settled in the colder, northern regions of the world with less sun, what in the diet would have changed? Fish! An abundance of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A, astaxanthin (natural sunblock), selenium and food based vitamin D. It also increased in vitamin C rich wild berries. folate rich wild greens, and wild mushrooms found in wet climates, all of which contain very strong anti-cancer compounds. While sun exposure became less, a diet rich in protective nutrients increased.
Diet Summary for Skin
If you have British/Irish and northwestern European heritage – and are living in similar climates now – you want focus on the foods that the climate and environment have always provided. This means fish and fish oils, berries, dark greens, mushrooms, pastured eggs, grass-fed meat and dairy.
If you are living in hot, sunny climates and have light skin, you also want to take precautions through higher omega-3 consumption – while also avoiding burning – and increase your uptake of folate, citrus, watermelon, tomatoes and cordyceps.
The Best Diet and Supplementation to Prevent Sunburn and Skin Cancer
If you are not able to consume enough fish, then fish oil is an excellent way to hit your omega-3 fatty acid targets. Wild salmon oil is rich in vitamin A and D to help protect from a UV-induced sunburn and cancerous changes in DNA. What makes it unique to any other fish oil is that it contains astaxanthin, which is a carotenoid that acts as a natural sunblock for marine plants. Research shows that astaxanthin prevents cancer initiation by protecting DNA from ultraviolet and oxidant damage, reduces liver fat and triglycerides, reduces the impact of glycation, and keeps skin young.
Cod liver oil is a superior source of vitamin A and D to protect the skin against aging and cancer, as well as anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids that everyone needs to balance the omega-6 intake. There is a balance of making sure you are not getting too much sun, but also getting enough for vitamin D production. Cod liver oil provides 3,000-5,000IU of vitamin A and about 400IU of vitamin D. If your vitamin D levels are clinically low, you will need to supplement with vitamin D on its own to bring your levels up. Vitamin A protects against toxicity of vitamin D and vice versa, however they need to be in the right ratios in the body.
Medicinal mushrooms including cordyceps, wild chaga, oyster, reishi, shiitake and maitake have well documented properties that are anti-viral, antimicrobial, anti-cancer, anti-hyperglycemic, anti-inflammatory and cardioprotective. Cordyceps and reishi in-particular have a wealth of research. Even according to WebMD, “Cordyceps might improve immunity by stimulating cells and specific chemicals in the immune system. It may also have activity against cancer cells and may shrink tumor size, particularly with lung or skin cancers.”
Vitamin C is a well known antioxidant capable of recycling vitamin E, both of which work together for the integrity of inside and outside every cell. A recent 2014 study found that vitamin C protected against UV irradiation-induced apoptosis by re-activating tumor suppression genes in skin cells. Another study found that vitamin C epigenetically reduced melanoma cell proliferation. Higher doses of vitamin C is needed for most who do not have access to freshly picked vitamin C rich food.
4. Berries and Pomegranates
Many berries contain strong antioxidant qualities and the phytochemical ellagic acid – highest in wild berries, raspberries, strawberries and pomegranates – with several studies showing it can inhibit the growth of tumors of the skin, esophagus and lung.
You can also use a cold processed raw blend of 8 wild berries from the Canadian mountains called Berrimax. I have found using this with the raw wild greens concentrate really makes your skin noticeably glow. This isn’t surprising if you have seen wild berries and greens in the wild, which seems to be impossibly bright and healthy. Given the price of berries for what seems like one serving, this gives you daily dose of all the amazing compounds.
5. Dark Green Vegetables
High in folate, lutein and zeaxanthin, leafy greens can help protect your cells from the damaging effects of free radicals, caused from sun-induced inflammation and extended sun exposure. An association of green leafy vegetables with decreased risk of skin cancer has also been reported, and a higher consumption of fruits and vegetables was related to decreased risk of SCC risk by 54%.The more sun exposure you have, the higher your folate requirements. These amounts may be even higher with certain gene variants in MTHFR. Eat with a fat source like avocado or olive oil for optimal absorption.
Here is the wild geens blend called GreensFlush. I think both Berrimax and GreensFlush have gone under the radar. This one contains raw wild dandelion greens, burdock leaf and nettles, blended for detoxification, and therefore healthier skin. Dandelion greens alone are high in vitamin K, zeaxanthin, carotene, lutein, vitamin C, B6, riboflavin and many other trace minerals.
6. Tomatoes and Watermelon
Rich in lycopene, a bright red carotenoid that has been shown to protect our skin from harmful UV damage, watermelons and tomatoes can help reduce the risk for skin cancer. One study found that lycopene was photoprotective, and inhibit proliferation of several types of cancer cells. Watermelons have 40 percent more lycopene than tomatoes, and this water-rich fruit can help protect you from sunburns and sun damage. Isn’t it remarkable how nature provides these during the summer? Eat both with a fat source of optimal absorption. Feta goes well with sliced watermelon, and olive oil with tomatoes. Other small amounts are found in calendula, pink grapefruit, guava, papayas and apricots.
7. Lime, Lemon and Orange Zest, Green Tea and Black Tea
Citrus foods contain limonene, which is highly concentrated in the rind. A study found the presence of limonene in the body can reduce the risk of squamous cell carcinoma. Green and black tea’s potent antioxidants protect your DNA from damage caused by light/sun exposure. Green and black tea is also used to make Kombucha.
8. Raw Cacao
Good news chocolate lovers! Chocolate has become recognized as an antioxidant-rich food that can help shield the skin against sun damage. One study found that dietary flavanols from cocoa contribute to endogenous photoprotection, improves dermal blood flow, hydration and complexion.
What is the Best Sunblock to Use to Prevent Sunburn?
If you want to make a dermatologist upset, mention studies that show the chemicals in commercial sunblock cause skin cancer. Here is the rule of thumb: don’t put anything on your skin that you wouldn’t put in your mouth. The skin is actually more sensitive since it dissolves right into your bloodstream without the detoxification process of your digestive system.
Instead of going round and round in the debate about whether or not the chemicals cause skin cancer, why not just choose a natural sunblock that works and doesn’t contain these controversial chemicals? Sound good? There are going to be days when you need to be out in the sun for extended periods of time and you don’t want to get fried if you haven’t been building up a tolerance to the sun.
I am currently looking for the best non-toxic sunblock that doesn’t turn your face white. Open to suggestions!