Moderation Key to Making The Most of Summer
Written by: Dr. Sailaja Reddy
Published in The Enterprise & The Patriot Ledger
I love the summer – the vacations, the beach, the fresh watermelon and strawberries, and the long sunny days. It’s when I enjoy fishing in local ponds, visiting farmers markets and performing “sun salutation” yoga postures out on my back deck.
Unfortunately, some of the best parts of summer have gotten a bad rap over time. People concerned about skin cancer now avoid the sun altogether, fearing its damaging rays. And those who love the fruits of the season, such as strawberries, cherries and peaches, worry about high levels of pesticides.
Patients who see me at Compass Medical often worry about getting too much sun, because of the real risk of melanoma. And most everyone is aware nowadays of the dangers of ingesting powerful insecticides and fungicides.
Yet nature is a fascinating system full of paradoxes. With moderation and the right approach, we can make the most of what summer has to offer to enhance our health.
First, while it’s true that too much sun exposure can increase the risk of skin cancer, it’s also true that not enough sun can increase the risk of other types of cancer such as colon and breast cancer. Why? Sun is a vital, natural source of vitamin D that’s necessary for the absorption of calcium. We who live in New England are unlikely to get enough sun, given our “northern exposure,” especially during the short, cold days of winter when we’re all bundled up.
Other factors, such as apartment living, pollution, and a lack of exercise outside contribute to low levels of vitamin D via the sun’s ultraviolet rays. This is an issue because a vitamin D deficiency shows few symptoms in the early stages. As the condition progresses, however, it can contribute to low calcium levels that lead to bone fractures – even from minimal trauma. This happened to me once, when I broke my thumb after applying just a little pressure to it. I tested my own Vitamin D levels, discovering they were extremely low.
A blood test is the only way to detect your level, which should be between 30 and 60 nanograms per milliliter (with the 25-hydroxxy blood test). I like to see all my patients above 40. If you suspect your vitamin D level is too low, tell your doctor. While insurance may not pay for the tests, depending on your symptoms, it’s better to intervene before a bone fracture or worse.
As a preventive measure, I advise taking vitamin D3 supplements. Talk to your doctor about dosages, drug interactions and signs of overdose, but I typically tell my patients to take more in the winter and fall. If a person’s levels are extremely low, a mega-dose of the vitamin may be recommended by your doctor.
Unfortunately, vitamin D is not found in many foods in significant amounts, unless the foods are fortified. Good, natural sources include some types of mushrooms, eggs, fatty fish, and some organ meats such as liver. Still, sunlight is the best source. For those who are not allergic to sunlight or who do not take medications that interact with sunlight, I recommend 15 minutes of exposure a day for patients with light skin and twice that amount for those with darker skin. Remember, vitamin D is fat soluble, meaning it’s stored in the body. So missing a day or two of sun will not deplete your levels.
People should also know that shielding from sun damage is not limited to clothing and sunscreens. The pigments and nutrients contained in colorful fruits and vegetables can help protect from skin and other types of cancers, in combination with sunscreens. Eating these foods increases what I call our “internal sunscreen.” People should eat plenty of green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach, purple vegetables such as red cabbage, red ones such as peppers, and yellow and orange ones such as squash and carrots.
This brings us back to pesticides. Buying only organic foods can be too costly for many families and washing often won’t remove chemicals.
For a more affordable grocery list, I tell people they should know the so-called Dirty Dozen foods, as ranked by the Environmental Working Group. These particular fruits and vegetables absorb and retain pesticides, making them difficult to clean. They should be bought from organic sources, and if not, washed in a vinegar solution. The current Dirty Dozen list has strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and sweet bell peppers, according to the Environmental Working Group. Among the “cleanest” choices are avocados, sweet corn and pineapples.
For people like me, who enjoy buying local food from farmers markets in the summer, there’s some good news. Oftentimes these are better options, because they are free of the additional pesticides typically added during transport. Buying local typically means buying fresher, too.
We’re now halfway through summer. Let’s enjoy the sun, fun and foods the season has to offer – in moderation and with care, of course.