Photopharmacology: Using Light for Health (Just Don’t Call Them Tanning Beds)

sunlight

Story at-a-glance -

  • RayVio Corp’s ultraviolet LED lights are more efficient than sunlight at producing vitamin D3 in your skin, according to recent research
  • The 293 nm LED “was found to be 2.4 times more efficient in producing vitamin D3 in human skin than the sun in less than 1/60th the time”
  • While the importance of optimizing your vitamin D levels cannot be overstated, it’s overly simplistic to think that you could replace all of the benefits of sun exposure via the use of an LED light — even one that helps you produce vitamin D efficiently

By Dr. Mercola

According to new research published by Scientific Reports,1 a certain type of LED lighting is "more efficient and effective" at producing vitamin D in your skin than what can be obtained through the sun, "the sunshine vitamin."

News-Medical reported that in research conducted by scientists at Boston University School of Medicine, skin samples exposed to RayVio Corporation's 293 nm UV (ultraviolet) LED (light-emitting diode) for just 0.52 minutes could produce more than twice the amount of vitamin D3 as skin samples exposed to sunlight for 32.5 minutes.

RayVio Corporation, a health and hygiene company based in California, says it uses advanced health and hygiene technology to provide UV disinfection "for health care environments and devices, for water and air, and for appliances and personal care, (giving) consumers control over health without chemicals or costly consumables."2 Dr. Michael F. Holick, professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at the university, who led the study, explained:

"RayVio's 293nm LED showed the most significant potential for vitamin D3 production in the shortest amount of time. This study will lead to a new generation of technology that can be labeled as photopharmacology in which the use of LEDs with targeted wavelengths can cause specific biologic effects in human skin to help treat and prevent chronic illnesses."3

A number of serious diseases and disorders are linked to vitamin D deficiency, such as osteoporosis, depression, unexplained aches and pains, stomach trouble, certain cancers and rickets. The researchers suggested the 293 nm LED device for making vitamin D could be a perfect fit for patients with fat malabsorption syndromes, including gastric bypass surgery or with inflammatory bowel disease.4

The device is said to emit "a much narrower band of UVB light … thereby decreasing likelihood of skin damage that can occur when the skin is exposed to higher wavelengths of UV radiation."5 However, this misses the point that your body actually benefits from the full spectrum of light available from the sun.

While it is certainly impressive that the 293 nm LED "was found to be 2.4 times more efficient in producing vitamin D3 in human skin than the sun in less than 1/60th of the time," it is not a replacement for regular, sensible sun exposure, and believing it to be could put your health at risk. The fact is, you need sun exposure to produce vitamin D, and while this is one area where the 293 nm LED may be a useful tool, you also need sun exposure for other reasons, many of which we have yet to fully understand.

Your Body Needs Sun Exposure, Not Just Vitamin D

While the importance of optimizing your vitamin D levels cannot be overstated, it's overly simplistic to think that we could replace all of the benefits of sun exposure via the use of an LED light — even one that helps you produce vitamin D efficiently. If you look at the spectrum of sunlight that reaches the Earth's surface, UVB radiation is responsible for making vitamin D.

But UVA, while being responsible for most of the skin damage linked to sun exposure, also helps modulate your immune system, and UVA and UVB in combination improves beta-endorphin production in your skin, which makes you feel good. Sun exposure on bare skin also produces nitric oxide and carbon monoxide that cause vascular relaxation, improves wound healing and helps fight infections, among other biologic processes.

The carbon monoxide your hemoglobin molecules release in response to UV radiation also acts as a neurotransmitter and has beneficial effects on your nervous system. Like nitric oxide, it causes relaxation and has anti-inflammatory activity.

Exposure to near-infrared light can even help to fuel your body, as the mechanism of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is the energy "currency" of your cells, production can be stimulated in response to near-infrared exposure, which triggers the mitochondria to produce additional ATP.

More specifically, light allows your body to use food more efficiently. In other words, light helps the cells make the best use of whatever food they have and improves the generation of energy. The ideal way to receive most of this exposure would be to simply go outside, exposing as much skin as possible. Unfortunately, there are many areas where this would be impractical in the winter. This is where therapeutic light devices can be helpful.

Facts and Controversy Regarding UV Light From Tanning Beds

The sun has been the main source for vitamin D for humans since the first sunrise, but UV light from tanning beds has been used as an alternative source since the 1970s. However, as Harmon Leon observed in a fascinating and enlightening article for Huffington Post's The Blog in 2010:

"There's a strange health tug-of-war going on. Doctors are now telling us to get back into the sun for better health since a large majority of Americans are being deprived of natural vitamin D and other benefits associated with sunshine. Meanwhile, the cosmetic dermatology industry seems to be turning up the heat on their 'stay out of the sun, wear sunscreen 24/7' message. Who's a person to believe?"6

You don't have to look far to find hair-raising cautions by the conventional medical community that say avoiding the sun and tanning beds and using sunscreen liberally are the only ways to lower your risk of developing the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma, specifically cutaneous malignant melanoma (CMM).

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO), classifies tanning beds as a human carcinogen — a cancer-causing agent.7 In fact, a recent WHO press release asserted that:

"Sunbed use has been estimated to be responsible for more than 450,000 non-melanoma skin cancer cases and more than 10,000 melanoma cases each year in the United States of America, Europe and Australia combined."8

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), indoor tanning from a bed, sunlamp or booth can cause not just melanoma, but other types of cancer, such as basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. 

Research in Support of Tanning Beds for Vitamin D Production

More recent research, however, has shown that there are actually health benefits from certain tanning bed use. Specifically, in a 2012 study conducted at the Institute for Cancer Research's Department of Radiation Biology in Norway, UV from the sun as well as from a UVB-type tanning bed were considered viable sources of vitamin D. The study concluded that even young people with pale skin in northern Europe with low vitamin D levels were found to have received benefits.

Further, researchers noted, "The overall health benefit of an improved vitamin D status may be more important than the possibly increased CMM risk resulting from carefully increasing UV exposure."9 In Leon's opinion, you need only look for who or what entity (or entities) might profit from the "sunshine is killing us" mantra that's been all over the news, and increasingly, the stance of the lock-step conventional medical machine. He notes:

"A quick Google search shows that in the past years several have been sent to prison for flat-out lying about skin cancer to their patients; slicing up healthy skin for insurance dollars. Do these cases show there's money to be made in cutting off skin lesions and calling them cancer? Is this a factor why skin cancer numbers might seem overinflated? Do the numbers add up when you start digging?"10

Leon added that in May 2010, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute released a study conducted at Oxford University listing melanoma as one of the most over-diagnosed cancers. Interestingly, at that time, although doctors were removing record numbers of skin lesions, melanoma mortality rates hadn't increased since 1975.11 A year prior, the British Journal of Dermatology reported that melanoma wasn't actually increasing in actual incidence but in reported incidence.

According to Leon, "What the report found was doctors were simply reporting and removing more lesions that may not actually be cancerous." Leon's question of whether or not this might be the reason behind the U.S. having just 4.5 percent of the world's population, but 52 percent of the world's melanomas (according to numbers from the American Cancer Society12), begs an objective response.

Conflicting Reports: Semantics and the Numbers Game

In 2010, the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) included a post from the editor of Reuters Health, Dr. Ivan Oransky, stating that WHO's claim that the "use of sunbeds before the age of 35 is associated with a 75 percent increase in the risk of melanoma" is somewhat of a matter of semantics:

"What does that really mean? Is it 75 percent greater than an already-high risk, or a tiny one? If you read … a number of other documents from the WHO and skin cancer foundations, you won't find your actual risk."13

AHCJ member Hiran Ratnayake, who probed the research, called the 75 percent statistic a problem, as it was based on several studies. The strongest of those lasted eight years and involved 100,000 women,14 following the passing of a law in Delaware limiting access to tanning salons for teens. However, the study found that fewer than three-tenths of 1 percent of the people who tanned frequently developed melanoma, while fewer than two-tenths of 1 percent who didn't tan also developed melanoma.

In reality, the 75 percent statistic is only about a 55 percent increase, but pooling it with other studies brought it up to the 75 percent. Another way Oransky explains it is that "even if the risk of melanoma was 75 percent greater than two-tenths of 1 percent, rather than 55 percent greater, it would still be far below 1 percent."15

Ratnayake talked to Dr. Lisa Schwartz, known for her work in scrutinizing numbers as well as the way they're portrayed in the media, and noted that a good way to make melanoma look more frightening is to mention the erroneously used 75 percent increase statistic, even though melanoma is "still really rare." Oransky contends the disparity is the difference between relative and absolute risk:

"Absolute risk just tells you the chance of something happening, while relative risk tells you how that risk compares to another risk, as a ratio. If a risk doubles, for example, that's a relative risk of 2, or 200 percent. If it halves, it's .5, or 50 percent. Generally, when you're dealing with small absolute risks, as we are with melanoma, the relative risk differences will seem much greater than the absolute risk differences.

You can see how if someone is lobbying to ban something — or, in the case of a new drug, trying to show a dramatic effect — they would probably want to use the relative risk."16

What Does Sensible Exposure to the Sun Do for You?

The Maryland Skin Cancer Prevention Program17 site is just one of many quoting WHO's 2009 claim that using tanning beds before age 35 is associated with a 75 percent increase in developing melanoma. Oddly, when the numbers are parsed by the mainstream media, they omit mentioning it's just the relative risk ratio. It's important to note that the risk is only likely if you make sun overexposure — getting burned — a habit.

To say that you need to wear sunscreen, long sleeves and stay out of the sun whenever possible is foolish, because the premise is false. Your skin needs the sun, as UVB exposure converts a cholesterol derivative into vitamin D3, critical for overall health and protecting you from disease and, as mentioned, that's just the beginning of the health benefits of sun exposure.

The amount of sun you require varies depending on your location, age, time of day and other factors, but a number of positive effects can be gleaned from regular exposure, including:

  • Protection from and suppression of multiple sclerosis symptoms
  • Relief of fibromyalgia pain
  • Decreased risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
  • Benefits for skin diseases such as psoriasis, vitiligo, atopic dermatitis and scleroderma
  • Cardiovascular protection and wound healing as an antimicrobial and anticancer activity

Mowing the lawn, strolling the beach, playing a game of soccer or gardening can be placed in the "occupational" risk category of sunlight exposure, but studies indicate outdoor workers have a decreased risk of melanoma compared with indoor workers.18 The aforementioned activities are not "occupational risks" but opportunities to spend some sensible time in the sun.

Getting sun or, if that's not an option, high-quality tanning bed, exposure on your skin on a regular basis does a number of things for your health. Along the same vein, it's evident from multiple studies that your melanoma risk decreases with UV exposure, provided you don't overdo it.

When it comes to rhetoric regarding tanning beds, there are a few crucial points to understand: UVA lamps are designed to darken your skin, while UVB lamps are designed to boost your vitamin D and provide other health benefits. Unfortunately, all UV devices are commonly referred to as "tanning" beds, with no distinction for the significant difference between a high-pressure UVA light device purposely made to darken skin versus the use of UV lamps designed for nutritional purposes.

The former addresses how you look, whereas the latter addresses optimization of health, reduction of chronic disease risk and general well-being — without regard for the actual shade of your skin. RayVio's 293 nm UV LED would fall into the latter category, as it appears to be quite effective at boosting vitamin D. But, again, I would caution against considering this to be a replacement for sunlight exposure.

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