Tanning Beds

By Jennifer LeClaire

To tan or not to tan? That is the question. 


For many years, tanning was en vogue, but the revelation of rising skin cancer rates associated with ultraviolet (UV) rays put a damper on “laying out” by the poolside or at the beach for hours on end. Now, many chiropractors are helping patients find the all-important, potentially life-saving balance between too much UV and not enough.

Some studies now show that regular exposure to sunlight is good for you. In fact, many show that increased exposure to sunlight may reduce the risk of food allergies and eczema in children, and cancers and multiple sclerosis in all people. 


The key factor in the prevention equation is vitamin D. Exposure to sunlight promotes production of vitamin D in the body. The list of benefits of vitamin D goes on and on, from protection against high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and autoimmune disease to relief from arthritis, chronic pain and beyond.


“Vitamin D is a very important building block [for] Chiropractic and overall health,” says Jennifer Greenfield, a DC at the Center for Chiropractic & Wellness in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. “It is known to help with osteopenia, a condition identified by soft or brittle bones, as well as osteoporosis and osteomalacia, or bone softening, often called rickets in children. Vitamin D is essential to the maintenance of a strong immune system and optimal mental health, as it is very effective in treating seasonal affective disorder.”


The Truth About Tanning Beds

There’s no question that vitamin D has many benefits. The question is how best to get vitamin D—through supplements, natural sunlight or tanning beds? Supplements aside, it’s helpful to understand the differences between natural sunlight and tanning beds when it comes to the health benefits of vitamin D and how to obtain them.

Scientists have published research about the dangers of tanning beds for decades. The overarching conclusion from the National Cancer Institute is that tanning beds can increase the likelihood of developing skin cancer by as much as 50 percent. The other side of the story reveals that a lack of UV radiation, which can come from sunlight or tanning beds, drives a vitamin D deficiency and increases the likelihood of breast, lung, prostate and colon cancers. Again, the key is finding the balance.


“An increasing number of people, 30 million a year, have turned to tanning beds as a way to increase their vitamin D levels and to look healthy,” says Jay Lipoff, D.C., an executive board member of the International Chiropractors Association Council on Fitness and Sports Health Science. “The American Academy of Dermatology reported that more than 60 percent of teens think they look healthier when they are tan.”


Looking healthy and promoting long-term health, though, are not always the same thing. The National Cancer Institute reported in 2002 that there was a more than 100 percent increase in the risk of squamous cell carcinoma from tanning beds. What’s more, the International Agency for Research on Cancer reviewed almost 20 studies on the relation between indoor tanning and the risk for melanoma and found similar results in 2007. And frequent tanners using new high-pressure sunlamps may receive as much as 12 times the annual UVA dose compared to the dose they receive from sun exposure, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Soaking Up the Sun

So, if tanning beds aren’t the best solution to the vitamin D deficiency problem, should you turn to natural sunlight? Chiropractors who study the issue recommend this as the best alternative, along with vitamin D supplements. As little as 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure a day is all the body needs to help it produce vitamin D. 


“Saying that the sun is bad for you is really no different than thinking that because people drown, water is bad for you,” says Gregg Baron, D.C., COO and co-founder of Dream Wellness in Smithtown, N.Y. “Getting 15 minutes of daily sunshine to increase vitamin D levels will decrease your chances of developing certain cancers.” 


The key with natural sunlight, as well as tanning beds, is to avoid sunburn, which is caused by too much UV radiation. More than 3.5 million skin cancers in more than
2 million people are diagnosed annually, according to a study by Howard Rogers, M.D., Ph.D., and Martin Weinstock, M.D., Ph.D., and one person dies from melanoma every hour. A person’s risk for melanoma doubles if they have had more than five sunburns in their lifetime, reports a study from Annette Pfahlberg, Ph.D., and Olaf Gefeller, Ph.D.


Sunscreen may actually be making the skin cancer problem worse. Although sunscreens can help prevent burning, a report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) claims that nearly half of the 500 most popular sunscreen products on the market may lead to skin tumors and lesions—or even increase the speed of skin cancer formations—because they don’t do what they say they do. The EWG reports that sunscreens allow people with pale skin to stay outdoors longer, but they are intensely exposed to UVA rays. The UVA rays may not burn them, but they can cause other damage, such as skin cancer.


“UV radiation that affects sun worshippers is in the form of UVA and UVB rays. Initially, it was believed only UVB rays were bad and comprised about 5 percent of the rays that reached Earth’s surface. Now it is understood [that both forms] cause damage to our skin. So, from a natural source or from a tanning bed, they both aren’t healthy,” Lipoff says. “To compound the problem is the fact that the ozone layer used to block most of the harmful UV rays. As the ozone is continually under attack by pollution from man and Mother Nature, more dangerous rays reach the planet.”


Vitamin D Supplements

At the end of the day, patients may be best off with the 10 to 15 minutes of daily sunlight exposure and a good vitamin D supplement. Greenfield provides nutritional counseling to patients and talks to them about vitamin D. But, she warns that just taking a vitamin D supplement is not enough for obtaining optimal health.


“Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, like vitamins A, E and K. These vitamins cannot be effective in the body without one another, and these vitamin supplements need to be eaten with some kind of fat to be absorbed into the body,” Greenfield says. “A low-fat diet can interfere with vitamin D being processed in the body, so it is important to receive adequate nutritional counseling before starting any sort of supplement.”


As far as supplements go, Greenfield recommends fermented cod liver oil from Green Pasture to patients. Cod liver oil has vitamins A, K and D and omega-3 fatty acids. Since this contains the other vitamins necessary for vitamin D processing, she says it can be very effective. Standard Process’ vitamin D supplements also contain vitamin A. Greenfield does not recommend taking vitamin D by itself. These kinds of vitamins are synergistic and work together to accomplish optimal absorption by the body. Vitamin D helps to prevent toxicity as long as other vitamins are at appropriate levels in the body.


“Many people don’t get vitamin D from being out in the sun if they wear sunscreen because sunscreen blocks vitamin D production. An SPF of eight reduces sunlight penetration by more than 90 percent, which essentially abolishes vitamin D production. Therefore, it can be important for people to consider taking a vitamin supplement,” Greenfield says. “If your whole body is exposed to sunlight, you can get between 10,000 and 20,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D at once. The RDA for vitamin D is 400 IU per day, but I do feel that that is very low. With supplements, I recommend between 2,000 and 4,000 IU of vitamin D consumption each day.” 


Although research studies on the topic of sunlight, tanning and vitamin D are ongoing, the general consensus by chiropractors is that tanning beds can be a friend if used in moderation and a foe if used in excess. Most chiropractors recommend that their patients get natural sunlight—avoiding burns—and supplement their diets with vitamin D to maximize overall health.