Book Review: The Healing Sun: Sunlight and Health in the 21st Century by Richard Hobday

Book Review: The Healing Sun: Sunlight and Health in the 21st Century by Richard Hobday

These days, we hear much about the harmful effects of solar radiation, particularly with regard to the effects of ultraviolet radiations (UV rays). We''re told to not venture out into the sun without the protection afforded by sunscreen, and to especially avoid the sun between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm when the sun shines most powerfully. Skin cancer is on the rise, as is its most dangerous form, malignant melanoma. So, it would seem the advice given by medical and health professionals to avoid the sun is wise, indeed. After all, what''s the point of obtaining a tan if it destroys your health?

Into this climate of sun-avoidance steps Richard Hobday and his book, The Healing Sun:Sunlight and Health in the 21st Century. In the book, Mr. Hobday makes the audacious claim that lack of sunlight claims more lives per year than does the deleterious effects of sun exposure. Part of his claim is based on reports that sunlight reduces cholesterol, blood pressure, and may protect against heart disease, tuberculosis, rickets, multiple sclerosis, and several common types of cancer, including breast and colon. Heart disease, in particular, claims hundreds of thousands of lives per year. If sunlight exerts even a minor protective effect against heart disease, exposure to UV rays may indeed save more lives than are claimed by malignant melanoma or other cancers of the skin.

Mr. Hobday expands upon that reasoning to discuss the history of sunlight therapy. Often a controversial technique, sunlight therapy was used in the 19th and early 20th century to treat tuberculosis patients before the advent of antibiotics. It appears to have had considerable effect in halting the progression of the disease when used by medical professionals who understood how to implement the therapy. Likewise, Florence Nightengale implemented sunlight therapy in the treatment of patients and helped design hospitals to maximize the possibilty of hospitalized patients to therapuetic sunlight. Other doctors utilized the sun to accelerate the healing of war wounds in the world wars of the 20th century, particularly those wounds that would not respond to other forms of treatment.

One of the most interesting facets of Mr. Hobday''s argument relates to his discussion of how sunlight therapy was implemented. Therapuetic use of sunlight bears little relation to today''s sunbathing. So, though, he uses the term sunbathing to describe sunlight exposure to enhance one''s health, please don''t confuse that term with the modern image of a person lying on a beach in a bathing suit baking in 90° F heat. The type of sunlight exposure he ultimately recommends is of short duration and occurs in cool conditions (in temperatures no higher than 64° F), with limited exposure of the trunk or even the face. The arms and the bottom parts of the legs would receive the greatest degree of sunlight. He also makes the suggestion that sunlight exposure take place in the early morning hours*, near the time when the sun rises. Based on historical evidence, exposure at this time of day seems particularly effective. Such ''sunbathing'' might lead to a farmer''s tan, which might be a less than attractive look, but if it''s health benefits you''re after, such sun exposure is best, Mr. Hobday says.

While Mr. Hobday''s claims proved to be very intriguing, they require further investigation. At the very least, perhaps such books will spur researchers into exploring the possible health benefits of sun exposure instead of focusing on the negative effects. One area that definitely requires further research, as far as this reviewer is concerned, is the effect of sunlight and the lack of it on vitamin D production. Research apparently indicates a greater role for this vitamin on one''s health than previously believed. If lack of sunlight exposure truly leads to deficiency of effective vitamin D in the blood, then that situation needs to be remedied, either through dietary changes or through moderate sun exposure.

Regardless of the ultimate verity of Mr. Hobday''s claims, we highly recommend this book as food for thought. They certainly have made me think twice about my previous views on sunlight exposure. Mr. Hobday discusses many other issues besides the ones addressed in this review, including seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a disease that afflicts people in winter months when sunlight exposure is at its weakest. We do issue the same caution, though, that Mr. Hobday makes. Please consult a doctor before deciding to implement sunlight therapy to improve one''s health. There are certain conditions and medications that make exposure to sunlight a dangerous thing.

Personally, I find it hard to imagine that exposure to sunlight can be completely detrimental to good health. For one, the Bible refers to the ''light'' as being a good thing often enough that avoiding the light of the sun and spending all one''s time indoors seems questionable. Who, after all, has not been heartened by the sight of the sun''s rays or the coming of spring that heralds the lenghtening of the day and the shortening of the night? Yet, we must take caution lest we come to admire too highly the sun that gives its rays instead of the One who put the sun in its place. He is to be our ultimate light and we''re simply to be thankful for the gifts he has bestowed on us; one of those gifts is the sun, and we should make use of it wisely.

John Okulski
Crossroad Health and Fitness

*An early morning walk would provide this sun exposure and exercise, to boot.