I respect doctors, and am grateful for their skills, knowledge, and compassion. But that respect and gratitude are much the same as my feelings about teachers: individually and personally they can be fantastic, but as a bureaucracy (the medical/educational "establishment") I have serious doubts.
In my own life, the medical establishment's attack on my health began at birth. I don't know the details of my hospital birth, but I know the official policies were long on interference and very disrespectful of the natural birth process. What I know for certain was that my mother was discouraged from breastfeeding and told to feed me "formula," which in those days was a mixture of water, evaporated milk, and Karo corn syrup. (You read that right.)
Somehow i survived that abomination of an infant diet, which also included introducing solid foods at a few weeks of age. But it didn't stop there: I grew up right in the middle of the big push to get people to eat margarine instead of butter. My parents followed that recommendation, too—probably quite willingly, because margarine was so much cheaper than butter. I don't blame them for that, but I do blame the medical establishment for pushing margarine as far healthier than butter. Of course they now tell us just the opposite. Several years ago I made the switch back to butter, but not before exposing our own children to far too much margarine in their diets.
When I was young, my family also switched from drinking whole milk (delivered in glass bottles, with the cream risen to the top) to the skimmed variety, again at the recommendation of the doctors. That one stuck with me—to this day I prefer skim milk, and with skim milk we fed our children. But it would probably have been better if I had never lost my taste for milk with its full complement of fat and natural vitamins. Even the doctors no longer recommend skim milk, though they're still pushing less than the full 4% butterfat version.
I've lived long enough to see doctors insist that all babies must sleep on their backs, then that all babies must sleep on their stomachs, then back to their backs, then their sides...with never an apology for giving the "wrong" advice for so many years. I'm glad that my knowledge of official fickleness enabled me to stand firm in my own decision not to let flip-flopping doctors determine how our babies would sleep. At least we got that one right.
Now there are indications that the intense campaign to come between American skin and the light of the sun is causing problems much more severe and widespread than the skin cancer it's supposedly preventing. The push to slather sunscreen on every time we leave the house has resulted in widespread vitamin D deficiency, and a re-emergence of the bone disorder, rickets. Moreover, the article, Is Sunscreen the New Margarine?, makes the case that sun exposure is necessary for our cardiovascular health, especially for healthy blood pressure levels. Many doctors are now saying that we need to ease up on the sun-phobia, though it's still controversial.
One of the leaders of this rebellion is a mild-mannered dermatologist at the University of Edinburgh named Richard Weller. For years, Weller swallowed the party line about the destructive nature of the sun’s rays. “I’m not by nature a rebel,” he insisted when I called him up this fall. “I was always the good boy that toed the line at school. This pathway is one which came from following the data rather than a desire to overturn apple carts.”
Weller’s doubts began around 2010, when he was researching nitric oxide, a molecule produced in the body that dilates blood vessels and lowers blood pressure. He discovered a previously unknown biological pathway by which the skin uses sunlight to make nitric oxide.
It was already well established that rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and overall mortality all rise the farther you get from the sunny equator, and they all rise in the darker months. Weller put two and two together and had what he calls his “eureka moment”: Could exposing skin to sunlight lower blood pressure?
Sure enough, when he exposed volunteers to the equivalent of 30 minutes of summer sunlight without sunscreen, their nitric oxide levels went up and their blood pressure went down. Because of its connection to heart disease and strokes, blood pressure is the leading cause of premature death and disease in the world, and the reduction was of a magnitude large enough to prevent millions of deaths on a global level.
Other studies have found more benefits of sun exposure.
Pelle Lindqvist, a senior research fellow in obstetrics and gynecology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute... tracked the sunbathing habits of nearly 30,000 women in Sweden over 20 years. Originally, he was studying blood clots, which he found occurred less frequently in women who spent more time in the sun—and less frequently during the summer. Lindqvist looked at diabetes next. Sure enough, the sun worshippers had much lower rates. Melanoma? True, the sun worshippers had a higher incidence of it—but they were eight times less likely to die from it.
So Lindqvist decided to look at overall mortality rates, and the results were shocking. Over the 20 years of the study, sun avoiders were twice as likely to die as sun worshippers.
On the other hand,
“I don’t argue with their data,” says David Fisher, chair of the dermatology department at Massachusetts General Hospital. “But I do disagree with the implications.” The risks of skin cancer, he believes, far outweigh the benefits of sun exposure. “Somebody might take these conclusions to mean that the skin-cancer risk is worth it to lower all-cause mortality or to get a benefit in blood pressure,” he says. “I strongly disagree with that." It is not worth it, he says, unless all other options for lowering blood pressure are exhausted. Instead he recommends vitamin D pills and hypertension drugs as safer approaches.
Seriously? Vitamin D supplements have been shown to be ineffective, probably because there's more to the benefits of sun exposure than the vitamin. And can he honestly believe that exposure to the risks of hypertension drugs is better than a little sunshine? I generally take with a grain of salt the blanket pronouncements of some of my more radical friends that the medical industry has no interest in anything they can't make money from. In most of life I'm inclined to attribute bad effects more to ignorance than to evil intent. However, sometimes that optimism is shaken.
Me? I live in Florida. I know the power of the sun, and am grateful for sunscreen when I deem it necessary. All the doctors agree that sunburn is bad. But even in Florida I've always known that some sun exposure is important—another thing I think we got right with our kids.
I still feel guilty about the margarine, though.