Natural sunlight does generally boost immunity and improve health. One major reason for this could be that exposure to sunlight stimulates vitamin D synthesis in the skin. However, overexposure depresses the immune system and can cause premature ageing, sunburn and DNA damage.
Effective protection can be achieved through what you eat as well as what you put on your skin. Good nutrition is vital in order to combat some of the damage. While sunscreen protects you from the outside, specific nutrients protect from inside out, blocking free radicals created by UV exposure from doing damage and accelerating ageing.
The best foods
Although all antioxidants help to protect against skin damage, one of the best skin protectors is lycopene, the natural pigment responsible for the deep red colour of several fruits. In addition to its antioxidant activity, it’s been shown to protect against skin cancer. Foods sources include tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon, papaya and guava. Highest levels are found in processed or cooked tomatoes such as puree, soup, juice or sauce. Indeed studies have shown that eating tomatoes daily can reduce UV damage by over 30 percent – what better excuse to enjoy a bloody Mary!
A lot of research has focused on green tea extract which can inhibit skin cancer cell growth and premature ageing. Tea contains nutrients that can block DNA damage in skin cells from UV light. Green tea extract is often included in antioxidant supplements, but a study earlier this year found that just two cups of the tea per day reduced sun damage to the skin and lowered inflammation caused by UV exposure.
Carrots and other foods rich in beta-carotene such as pumpkin, cantaloupe, sweet potato and spinach are also powerful UV protectors. Sunlight triggers sunburn by creating free radicals. Antioxidants absorb free radicals, and beta-carotene is an especially useful antioxidant because it is stored in the fat just below the layers of the skin that need it.
Another important nutrient essential for skin protection and repair is vitamin E so including avocados, sunflower seeds, almonds and green leafy vegetables in your diet gives you healthy amounts. Avocados also contain vitamin C and these two nutrients interact together giving even more protection.
One thing I always eat or drink lots of when exposed to strong sunlight is watermelon. The flesh is rich in lycopene, vitamins A and C and beta carotene whilst the seeds contain selenium and zinc. By blending the fruit (including the seeds) into a drink, you maximise its sun protective power. Its also really hydrating and has been shown to be twice as hydrating as water, working more as an isotonic drink due to its hydrating salts, minerals and sugars. For a fab holiday cocktail check out our watermelon daiquiri.
Not all sunscreens are equally effective and some contain pretty nasty chemicals. Paradoxically some of these chemicals can actually damage DNA. Most also block our ability to make vitamin D which actually helps suppress the growth of melanoma cells. For this reason a little unprotected sun exposure is a good thing.
A solution may be to use a more natural sunscreen that has vitamins, minerals and herbs added and the most important nutrients in this regard are the same as the ones you need to eat to protect you from the inside: vitamins A, C and E, selenium, and zinc. By using natural sunscreens you are not only filtering the harmful rays but also protecting the skin with antioxidants, helping neutralize free-radicals before they cause damage.
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