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8 Natural Ways to Prevent a Sunburn (And Sunscreen’s Not One of Them)

Posted By Mark Sisson On July 19, 2011 @ 8:39 am In Sun Exposure | 228 Comments

As summer descends upon the world, a young Primal eater’s fancy turns to playful frolicking in the sunshine. And when you’re frolicking, the last thing you want to do is slather a bunch of horrible-smelling, greasy, overpriced sunblock [7] all over your body. It makes you slippery and imbues your countenance with a deathly pallor that is very unbecoming. If you could, you’d love to avoid the nasty practice altogether. You’d love to use more alternative methods. Methods that may not have the support of the medical community, but for which supportive research does exist. Seeing as how a common refrain throughout the newly Primal is that sunburns seem fewer and further between than ever before, I’m guessing that there’s something to it. Dietary? Supplementary?

I’ve noticed the same thing in myself and my family, so I got to wondering: what about going Primal [8], exactly, might be having this effect? And if something is protecting us from the sun, and it’s not just in everyone’s heads, what else can we do to bolster our natural sunblock? What can we recommend to friends and family who aren’t quite on board with the whole deal but still want protection from the sun? Let’s take a look at some potential supplements and dietary strategies. I’ll reference research as often as possible, but I’ll also draw on anecdotal experience, both personal and from the community at large.

Eat Some Lycopene

Lycopene, that famous carotenoid found in tomatoes, has been shown in a recent in vivo RCT [9] to protect humans against sun damage. Healthy women, aged 21-47, who ate 55 g of tomato paste containing 16 mg of lycopene every day for 12 weeks experienced significant protection against acute – and potentially long term – sun damage. Remember that cooked tomatoes, and tomato products like paste and sauce [10], offer far more bioavailable lycopene than raw tomatoes. If you’re counting, 55 grams of tomato paste is a hair over 3 tablespoons worth.

Get Some Astaxanthin

The super-antioxidant astaxanthin is found in algae, the organisms that eat it, and the organisms that eat those organisms (like salmon [11], shrimp [12], and pink flamingo – the pink/red color gives it away). It has been getting some attention as an “internal sunscreen.” Does it stack up? Well, here’s a study [13] on isolated human skin cells, in which astaxanthin definitely protects against UVA damage. And here’s another [14] study on isolated skin cells showing its protective effects. But those are limited. Does the effect persist in real life settings? In other words, does ingesting astaxanthin supplements or food that contains astaxanthin offer protection from UVA? This hairless mouse study [15] suggests that it might; astaxanthin was more effective than even retinol. I’d say it looks promising, and I’m always interested in an excuse to dine on pink flamingo thigh.

Get Some Vitamin D

A common anecdotal report is that supplementing vitamin D [16] increases sun tolerance and protection against sun damage, and a recent study [17] seems to confirm this. Various forms of the vitamin D prohormone offered various protections against UV damage in a mouse model: reduced sunburn, lowered incidence of tumor development. Huh, imagine that! Getting sun gives you vitamin D, which in turn protects you from too much sun. It’s funny how these things work out. Nature can be very elegant.

Get Your Long-Chain Omega-3s and Ditch the Omega-6s

A recent study [18] out of Australia found that adults with the highest serum concentrations of DHA and EPA [19] had the least “cutaneous p53 expression.” What’s the significance of cutaneous p53 expression? When your skin is in danger of damage from the sun, p53 expression is upregulated to protect it, and high p53 immunoreactivity can lead to melanoma. The fact that high DHA/EPA meant low p53 immunoreactivity suggests that the omega-3s were protecting the skin. And although the study’s authors noted that high serum omega-6 content didn’t seem to correlate with high p53 activity, I think a likelier explanation is this: omega-6 is so prevalent in the modern Australian diet, that even “low” levels are still above the threshold for increased susceptibility to sunburn. Going higher than that threshold won’t make things any worse, and it won’t show up in the statistics. Drop that omega-6 [20] intake to 2% of calories, though, while getting an equal amount of omega-3s? I bet you’d see some incredible UV-resistance.

Eat Plenty of Saturated Fat

This is slightly redundant in light of the last suggestion – after all, if you’re limiting PUFAs [21], you gotta eat some saturated fat – but I think it’s worth mentioning. I hear about people bumping up their saturated fat [22] intake and improving their UV-resistance all over the place, and I’ve experienced the same thing myself, but I’d never seen it mentioned in the literature. Well, here’s a cool rodent study [23] in which mice were either given a saturated fat-enriched diet or a PUFA-enriched diet. No word on the exact composition of the two diets. When both groups of mice were injected with melanoma cells, “the initiation time required for visible tumor growth in mice receiving the polyunsaturated fat diet was significantly less than that in mice receiving the saturated fat diet.” A higher-saturated fat diet was protective, while a higher-PUFA diet was not. If you’re gonna be out in the sun, better eat your butter [24], palm oil [25], and coconut oil [26], eh?

Drink Tea

Tea, especially green tea [27], offers a complex arsenal of antioxidant compounds. How it works and what’s doing it isn’t fully understood, but it’s generally accepted that drinking green tea is a smart move and a mainstay of many healthy traditional cultures. Unsurprisingly, there’s also evidence that dietary green tea, specifically its polyphenols, inhibit the development of skin tumors [28] by controlling inflammation and preventing DNA damage. Topical green tea extracts applied directly to the skin also offer photoprotection [29].

Get Some Proanthocyanidins

Proanthocyanidins, which can be found in wine [30] and grape seeds, berries like blueberries [31] and chokeberries, nuts like hazelnuts and pistachios, and certain niche grains like sorghum and barley, have been efficacious in preventing UV damage in hairless rodents [32]. Whether it works for hairless apes remains to be seen, but drinking wine and eating berries sound like fine ideas regardless of their photoprotective efficacy. Actually, score one for the hairless apes who quaff wine: a recent study [33] found that people who supplemented with grape seed extract (high in anthocyanidins) had a significantly lower risk of skin cancer. It sounds promising.

Consider Resveratrol

Resveratrol [34] gets a lot of publicity for its possible anti-cancer, cardioprotective, and lifespan enhancing qualities, but it’s also gaining steam as a potential photoprotective agent. This study found that once incorporated into skin cells, resveratrol protected them from UV damage. Topical resveratrol seems viable, too, but I can imagine rubbing resveratrol into your sun-exposed skin would get expensive rather quickly.

Well, that’s what I came up with. I think the first four appear to be the most effective, but if you have a real problem with burning, it might be worth checking out all the strategies I mentioned. I’m also interested in what’s worked for you. Have you tried the above methods? Did they work? Fill us in and thanks for reading!


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[7] sunblock: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/spf-100-sunblock/

[8] going Primal: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/ten-ways-to-get-primal/

[9] in vivo RCT: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20854436

[10] sauce: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/how-to-make-the-ultimate-homemade-tomato-sauce/

[11] salmon: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/salmon-factory-farm-vs-wild/

[12] shrimp: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/a-quick-guide-to-shrimp/

[13] study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20219323

[14] another: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12354422

[15] hairless mouse study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7591536

[16] vitamin D: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/deconstructing-vitamin-d/

[17] recent study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21733837

[18] recent study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21217086

[19] DHA and EPA: http://www.marksdailyapple.com../../fish-oil-health-benefits/

[20] omega-6: http://www.marksdailyapple.com../../nuts-omega-6-fats/

[21] PUFAs: http://www.marksdailyapple.com../../polyunsaturated-fat/

[22] saturated fat: http://www.marksdailyapple.com../../saturated-fat-healthy/

[23] cool rodent study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6582290

[24] butter: http://www.marksdailyapple.com../../grass-fed-butter/

[25] palm oil: http://www.marksdailyapple.com../../palm-oil-nutrition/

[26] coconut oil: http://www.marksdailyapple.com../../coconut-oil-health-benefits/

[27] green tea: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/to-tea-or-not-to-tea/

[28] inhibit the development of skin tumors: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19020550

[29] offer photoprotection: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10594754

[30] wine: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/chocolate-and-wine/

[31] blueberries: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/lamb-with-blueberry-wine-reduction/

[32] hairless rodents: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12807737

[33] recent study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21664718

[34] Resveratrol: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/resveratrol-pancreatic-cancer/

[35] The Primal Blueprint Starter Kit: http://primalblueprint.com/products/The-Primal-Blueprint-Starter-Kit.html

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